Alaskan invents flashy coats to safeguard tiny dogs from predators

We've all heard the joke before. Someone sees a small dog, maybe a Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Shih Tzu or pug, and blurts "eagle bait!"

Near misses and actual attacks on pets by birds of prey and other predators have inspired a handful of worried pet owners across the nation to invent a variety of doggie-defense systems. The general concept of the protective coats is to repel raptor attacks and minimize injury if an attack does happen.

When Alaskan Janet Wass found nesting eagles in the backyard of her Anchorage rental property, she came up with "My Invisible Pet," a reflective coat designed to conceal small animals from a predator's gaze.

As Wass tells it, she once asked two ornithologists who worked near her what she could do so save her 7-pound papillon-poodle mix, Juju, from eagles, hawks and owls. After taking one look at Juju, Wass said the bird experts laughed and said, "Dinner!"

The bird experts recommended a caged enclosure as the only fail-safe option. But Wass, an artist who makes African tribal dolls and embroidered pieces, wasn't satisfied.

"I've lived in Ghana, Africa. From 2007 to 2009, when I was 60 years old, I served in the Peace Corps there. People spray-painted their chickens fluorescent colors, and they did it to prevent hawks from stealing their chickens," Wass said.

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Determined to come up with an option that would allow more freedom than a cage, she and her daughter did some research and found that reflective light may be the perfect deterrent.

"It blinds them," Wass said of the large birds of prey that might make a meal out of a small dog like Juju.

Wass went through several prototypes of her My Invisible Pet coat before she came up with the versions she now sells. She thought Mylar, a highly shiny material, would be great, but found it too difficult to work with.

Now made of colorful lamé -- a shiny, metallic fabric -- pleather or sequins, and souped up with a head lamp, Wass says birds of prey and other predators with sensitive eyes are blinded by the bright, reflected glow of the vests, making the pet "invisible" to its would-be attacker.

"Not only did the two eagles in our yard stop looking at Juju, they didn't even look down anymore," Wass said.

A growing business model

Wass's coat design is among other don't-eat-my-dog-for-dinner clothing lines launched in recent years. From understated to outrageous, each inventor's creation is engineered to keep little pets, mostly dogs, safe from the jaws and claws of larger animals.

Bill Carusso, the Illinois-based inventor of RaptorShield, came up with his polycarbonate dog vests after witnessing a red-tailed hawk attack Daisy, his family's 9-pound silky terrier.

Joshua Vandever designed PredatorAway anti-attack vests after his 9-pound terrier-mix, Alley, suffered a coyote attack during a hike in Nevada. The vests, which also claim to be a good defense against other dogs and come in sizes for larger dogs, feature giant spikes, Kevlar and ballistic nylon.

San Diego-based Paul and Pam Mott and Nicole Mellom came up with CoyoteVest body armor after they watched a coyote snatch, shake and kill the Motts' small dog, Buffy. This version of protective coat features spikes and stab-resistant Kevlar in places where injuries tend to occur most. It also comes with upgrades like the "hawk shield," a Kevlar cape-like flap that attaches to the main harness with Velcro, nylon bristles the company calls "whiskers," and a remote controlled zapper the pet owner can use to electrify the coat and shock the attacker.

A second San Diego-based inventor, John Dumas, came up with Spike Bite protection vests, again to prevent his dog, Maggie, from becoming a coyote meal. He, too, came up with metal plates and spikes as "war armor for your pet," but his vests embed the armor in pads. The vests also feature reflective material to deter hawks.

Another version, made by Crazy K Farm Pet and Poultry Products, affixes giant red-and-yellow "predator eyes" to the backs of harnesses to "discourage hawks and other large birds of prey." The special effect apparently turns your wee pet into a menacing, larger beast with a don't-mess-with-me intense glare.

Some of the designs look inspired by the movie "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." Wass' designs, more flash than force, are sleeker and sparklier.

Do eagles actually snatch small dogs?

Eagles do occasionally swoop in and fly off with a pet, as happened decades ago in Valdez. The Associated Press reported that an out-of-town couple watched in horror as an eagle snatched their Chihuahua while they gassed up their RV.

In general, though, Alaska's bald eagles are much more interested in fish, according to a 2008 article, "Eagles Don't Eat Children or Pets," written by Riley Woodford for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Woodford noted there are physical limitations to how much weight an eagle can carry.

"The wings of an eagle need to support the 8- to 12-pound bird as well as whatever the bird is carrying, and best estimates put the lifting power of an eagle at 4 or 5 pounds," Woodford wrote. A bird flying faster can carry more weight; a bird trying to take off with a catch from a dead stop would be more limited.

Woodford consulted Mike Jacobson, a retired eagle management specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who told him: "There used to be stories about eagles carrying off babies and little kids, and none of that has ever been documented. They can pick up and carry 4 or 5 pounds, maximum, and actually fly off with it. They can lift a little more and hop it along, but they can't carry it off."

Jacobson also explained that immature eagles, the ones still learning how to fly, hunt and what to eat, are the ones that are most likely to make a mistake by going after a dog.

Wass isn't convinced the military-grade coats made by other manufacturers offer much protection from birds of prey. After all, what's to stop the birds from just carrying the dog and it's coat off together?

I can't say how well any of the coats work. Some appear to be endorsed by veterinarians. But I do know two things. Owner peace of mind, even if it's based on an investment in a product that isn't foolproof, is worth something. And there's got to be a reality TV show in the making here. A "Project Runway" for pets, maybe?

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.