Nearly a decade ago, Ellen Lawson had four dogs that were tough on toys. In particular, plush toys tended to develop holes quickly, and Ellen couldn’t seem to find dog toys that had quality construction and fabric. So, she started Fluff & Tuff toys in 2010 and began working with a children’s toy manufacturer to create durable toys that would please all types of dogs.
While no toy (especially a plush toy!) is indestructible, Mud Bay has plenty of customers who agree that Fluff & Tuff can withstand more than the average plushie. Fluff & Tuff starts with their incredibly thick and tough Tuffweb™ liner that’s covered with plenty of plush fur and double-stitched seams. Plus, Ellen’s unique designs make both Muddies and Mud Bay customers smile.
So, when it came time to partner with a toy manufacturer to develop a unique Mud Bay toy, Fluff & Tuff was at the top of our list! To celebrate this year’s launch of Salish Sockeye, our exclusive salmon toy, we talked with Ellen to learn how she turns her ideas to reality.
MB: We were thrilled when you agreed to partner with us to design a dog toy. Can you share how you navigate the design process when you make a toy?
EL: When designing a toy, I always try to start off with a real image of an animal. I go online and look at a lot of different photos of that animal, so I understand exactly what it looks like in the wild. Most of all, I want the toy I create to look natural and not look like a caricature. At the same time, I also want to create a toy that’s appealing and attractive to dogs and owners.
Sockeye salmon are distinctive looking when they’re spawning. And when I create toys, I want someone to automatically know what animal they are seeing. So, I decided to highlight the spawning sockeye salmon because their coloring is so distinctive at that time.
The next step is to decide on the colors, shapes and size of the toy and combine all that information. Then I send those specifications to our manufacturers. They have a designer on staff who will help me by pulling the fabric and creating a mock-up of the toy.
From there, the design is done via actual samples of the product. When I get the first mockup, I might say: This color isn’t right, or the fins could be larger. Most alterations are around the face. The face is very difficult to get right. There’s a lot of back-and-forth until we get it just right.
MB: How long does it take, from the moment you say, “Okay, I’m going to make this toy,” to holding the finished toy in your hands?
EL: Well, that depends. Some of them are super easy. For example, we just launched a unicorn that was easy for me. And then there are more difficult toys. I will say that Salish was a little more difficult. We had to work to find the right fabric and shape. Plus, there was a little added pressure because it was for someone else.
Generally, from start to when it arrives at our door, it’s three to six months. It just depends on the level of detail involved and how many alterations it takes to make it look realistic. Some toys are just vastly easier than others. However, I’d guess it’s usually six months on average.
On rare occasions, we’ll have a toy that we’ve designed that never makes it into production. We’ll start with an idea, but when we start working with prototypes, we realize that a toy won’t work for our customers. Luckily that’s been a rare occurrence.
MB: Has there been a toy that Fluff & Tuff launched that you were surprised at how well it did?
EL: There have been some that surprised me in both ways. There are toys that sell extremely well that I never thought would, and there are toys that end up being duds. For example, our Beach Ball sells incredibly well. I thought it would do pretty well, but I didn’t expect the level of popularity.
Our tiny Shelly Turtle is probably our number one best seller. But we just designed it thinking little dogs might need toys, and we never expected that type of response.
I don’t want to name names, but we do have a couple that I thought would do well, but they didn’t do as well as we hoped. But they’re still around, waiting to be discovered by a larger audience.
MB: Do you have a secret favorite toy or one that you loved designing?
EL: I have a few toys that I loved designing. Our first toys were such fun to design because I had no idea what I was doing. Most recently, Tico the Sloth was a lot of fun because sloths are such interesting little creatures. Also, people were really anticipating him.
And then—and I’m not saying this because we’re talking—I think that Salish Sockeye salmon was a lot of fun to design because it was something different. It was my first toy for someone else, so I had to think about what someone else would want and create that.
MB: How do you decide what toy Fluff & Tuff should make next?
EL: In the beginning, it was easy to decide because we created toys based on what animals dogs see in the yard, such as squirrels, bunnies or raccoons. Then I discovered that certain shapes work best for some dogs than other shapes. For example, many dogs do well with long, narrow toys. We launched a fish on a whim, and people really liked it. Our Ruby Rainbow trout is one of our most popular toys.
Right now, we have about 60 different toys, so we decide via intuition. We ask ourselves what might be missing or what might be fun. We’re also looking into doing a regional toy. We have people in the Northeast that ask for lobsters all the time.
But often we’re just thinking about what style of toy might be missing. We might consider making a toy that has a specific size or shape. We also try to think about toys that might double as frisbees or tug toys. And in the case of Violet Unicorn, Lola Flamingo and Jimmy Parrot, sometimes we just want to create a toy with a little extra color or fun. ***
Ellen Lawson founded Fluff & Tuff with her husband, Chris. Now they work together to create high-quality dog toys that meet the standards set for U.S. children’s toys. They also rely on the input of their two rescue dogs, Georgia and Harry, to let them know what toys are ready for production.