Episode 75 – Lindsey Wolko

Lindsey Wolko joins us today and shares with us a personal story about Maggie that led her down the path of pet product crash testing. Lindsey is a long-term pet safety advocate and leads a mission that is personal to every pet owner. The Center for Pet Safety (CPS) has authored the first safety standards for pet products, launched a certification program, counseled pet product manufacturers around the globe and works tirelessly for consumer and companion animal safety. They have a bright future ahead of them and we’re excited to see what 2019 has in store for them. They have many resources on their website, including recalls and a place where you can file a complaint, we encourage you to check them out and see how you can help them today!

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Lindsey Wolko leads the mission that is personal to every pet owner. With a keen understanding of the pet industry, she has authored safety standards for pet products, launched a certification program, counseled pet products manufacturers around the globe, and she works tirelessly for consumer and companion animal safety. Miss Wolko has a background in project and program management as well as governance and controls development. Lindsey holds a bachelor’s degree from George Mason University and currently leads the research division of Center for Pet Safety.

Hey, Lindsey, Thanks for coming on today.

Hey, Chris, How are you?

Doing great. Tell us your story. Tell us how you got to where you are.

Well, this goes back to 2004. I was contacted by a woman in Wisconsin. She had a dog who was in a really bad place and situation and she needed an urgent home for her. I had her brother, the dog’s brother. She shipped Maggie to me and I picked her up on Memorial Day weekend, 2004. I didn’t even think about what I was going to do to travel with Maggie. I had two dogs and crates in the back. I thought I was doing everything right. Maggie was wandering all over the car, and I didn’t even think about it. One day I couldn’t find her in the car, and I thought, “Okay, I’m paying more attention to where my dog is and what is going on in front of me.” I stopped by my local big box retail store, I went to the travel section, and found out a safety harness for her. It said it would protect her in a crash, and protect me if we got in a crash. All right, great. This is perfect. Again, I thought I did everything right.

A few months later, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a crash, and all I heard was screaming. It was horrible. I couldn’t get to her because I had to navigate all the chaos. I’ve got this dog screaming in the back. She’s obviously in pain. She’s been hurt. I finally was able to pull over, take care of Maggie, and found out that the safety harness that said it would protect everybody, did nothing to protect Maggie.

Down the road, I joined the pet products industry. I want to look into product concerns and, see if we could find better solutions for pet owners. I went into the for-profit side of this, and then I decided because of the stories I heard from pet owners and the questions we constantly received, like, “Are these really going to protect my pet in a crash?” These things, they’ve been crash-tested, and they put it out for protection. So I did a pilot study. I decided that I was going to take this on. I worked with a crash-test laboratory and we developed a dog dummy that we could use to evaluate products, to put together this whole pilot study. We selected I think 12 harnesses at the time, and we selected four of those as our control group. If these don’t work, then the other ones we know won’t work, kind of thing. We did the testing, and we had a 100% failure rate of the harnesses.

Oh that’s terrible.

Yes, it is. So it just opened up this whole can of worms and we’re like, “All right, so what are we going to do with this?”

I’m curious. Your background was not hidden testing harnesses, right? What was your background?

Well, I worked in program and project management, in the software side of things, typically, right? But, I do have some testing background, but it’s usually testing software applications. So the same basic principles apply, and so I took that knowledge base and we put together this program and it just blossomed from there. Eventually we had a sponsor come aboard to help us collect data. We had these data collection efforts. We do the studies on harnesses, crates, carriers, and pet travel seats so that we could see what the manufacturers were claiming, and we could evaluate what the products actually could do, versus what they should do.

Right. When did you form the Center for Pet Safety then?

The Center for Pet Safety was founded after that pilot study in 2011 so we conducted the study over 2010 – 2011. Because we had to feel our way through it – how are we going to manage this, this is a whole new world that we’re stepping into – I worked with a lot of engineers, got a lot of counsel, and spoke with a lot of people in the passenger safety space. Yes, CPS was founded after we finished the testing for the harnesses when we have discovered that this was actually the tip of an iceberg, that we’ve got very bad performance here. We need to establish standards for pet travel products, actually for all. Now, it’s all pet products need to have standards. Most pet owners don’t even think about it and they think everything’s been tested because you can buy it on the shelf. It’s like if you go buy something for a kid, it’s all been tested.

Yes. How did they get away with saying that it has been crash-tested if they’ve not really done that?

It’s challenging because even some of the brands, they say they go to a test laboratory and they’ll publish. We had one brand that published like three seconds of footage. They only showed the beginning part of the test, but they didn’t show what actually happened at the end. While the product may have been crash tested, it may not have passed. Just because you crash tested it doesn’t mean that it’s going to hold up. That’s where the safety standards have to come into play. We took that on too. We’ve authored the first safety standards for travel products for pets, and now we’re actively measuring performance on a voluntary program called The Center for Pet Safety Certification Program. Pet owners can come to our website and find out the best products on the market for traveling with their pets.

How many products approximately have you guys tested now?

Oh, hundreds at this point. We’ve tested hundreds of products at this point. Somebody asked me that a couple months ago, and I was like, I’m going to have to sit down and do a computer analysis. We just test and test and test. We’ve slowed down now since the study’s finished up in 2015. Now we’ve got this standard, so we rely – The manufacturers now have to step up to the plate and say, “Okay, this is important enough for our constituency that we’re going to have you independently evaluate the product.” So yes, it’s been an interesting journey.

Yes, for sure. Now I’m curious that you’ve tested hundreds. Is there any of them that particularly stand out to you?

Oh, yes. If you go to our website, centerforpetsafety.org, you will find the – It’s called the CPS Certified Program. We want pet owners to look for CPS certified. If you click on the link on our website, it’ll take you to the list of products that have passed our testing based on independent valuation. You will see that it’s not that many. Yes, it’s not that many have passed. We’ve worked with brands in the background and we’re working towards there. We’re going to get there, but it’s a whole new world for the pet products industry to be held to a standard.

Yes, that’s what I was going to say. Are you seeing it? Are you hearing positive response from the manufacturers when you are sharing with them the standards that you developed and how they can make their products better and safer?

Well, I counsel hundreds of brands per year, whether it’s an independent inventor, engineers, current product, or current brands that are out there. They all want to work towards certification, at least they say they do. They come to us for knowledge so we do share because that’s part of our mission, right? If we’re going to educate them and bring them up. Many of them are excited about it. We actually have, I think we’re going to have our first international certification likely coming up sometime within the next three months.

Wow. That’ll be exciting. What’s different about the international one?

Well, we’re a nonprofit based in the United States so you would think most of the pet products in the world are made in the US, or the manufacturers reside in the US, let’s put it that way. So the majority of them are US-based. We’ve got brands that are in Canada, in the UK, Australia – all over the world that are working to meet our standard and have us independently evaluate the product. That’s a big deal. If we get international certification, it just helps propel Center for Pet Safety into a different realm to where we become an international certification body.

Yes. Did you ever imagine that when you started this you’d be where you are today?

No. No, I never did. I never thought 20. If you ask me 20 years ago, if I would be doing pet product crash testing or, working on studies with universities and PhDs and veterinarian, I would have said you’re out of your mind. I had no idea this is where it’s going to take me but when someone hurts your dog, even though it wasn’t purposeful, that changes you when you all of a sudden, you find out that, your dog was injured, and you have absolutely no recourse as a consumer other than to take that product back to the store and get your money back. It doesn’t cover the vet bills. It doesn’t cover the pain and suffering the dog went through and the stress and time away from work that you had to take care of her. Things like that, it really opens your eyes. I don’t want any pet owner to go through what I went through with Maggie so that’s really what drives this mission today. We hear from people, like a couple months ago, I would say about six to eight months ago, we heard from a woman and think you had her on your podcast. She founded Piper’s Walk. She’s like, “My dog was killed in the crash. I want pet owners to understand that you have to have your pets restrained now. This is important. They need to know.” I’m like, “Yes, I get it.” So she understands where we’re coming from. She gets what the mission is all about. She actually sponsored testing. She and her organization, piperswalk.org sponsored testing. We recently published that testing and it was very eye-opening for her. When we invited her to the lab, we said, “Hey, come on, watch this. You can, you’re going to help with testing. We want you hands-on.” Do you see what this mission is all about? Meet our crash test dogs. Understand the engineering that goes into this, and all the work and the science that goes behind the evaluation for product.

Yes, all the preparation just for the crash test, right? To see actually what happens and being able to see with the high-speed cameras and seeing everything in slow-mo and seeing the aftermath.

Yes, and just looking at a product package one of the products we tested was one that I was personally familiar with, but we had her select, make the product selection. That’s like, “All right, so let’s talk about your story. What product would you be likely to choose for Piper had she survived?” She said, “Well, I would have gone to my local big box store and I would have picked this one. This particular one here because it says on the product package, it’s crash-tested and it’s weight-rated for the weight of where Piper was.” So we took one of our dogs and we made it the same weight as Piper. We put the harness on the dog and we crash tested. Does it hold up to the marketing claim? I think she was a little blown away by the result. We published the results so pet owners can go see the resulting Top Paw test results from on our website

What do you notice that typically happens with some of these harnesses that’s giving way. Is it the stitching? Is it the buckles?

Yes. Yes, General. Yes, a lot of these brands have plastic buckles. Plastics do not hold up in crash testing. We know that. We know that stitching needs to be a certain design. It needs to be a certain type of thread. It needs to be the right kind of webbing. We’ve seen webbings melt and come separated. We’ve seen hardware be too sharp and it cuts through the straps. We’ve seen buckles fail. We’ve seen stitching fail. It’s just it really comes down to the amount of work and due diligence that the brand do before they even start going to do the due diligence testing that we guide them through.

Yes, I know you would think, a product that specifically designed for this purpose, right? Like you, I see a lot of people that don’t even secure their animals. They’re sitting on their laps and walking around, and you just want to pull him over and shake him and say, “Do you realize what’s going to happen to your dog if you get in an accident?” But even for the ones that do secure them, it’s disappointing to hear that so many of these products really just fail, what with the one purpose that they have.

Right. That’s why we exist, right? If everything had worked in our pilot study and we had a 100% success rate, there would be no need for our organization. We’ve been in the travel space now since that pilot study, and this year we’re stepping out of that. Actually, 2019 we have a whole new program we’re going to be launching later in the year. We’re very, very excited for that testing, and that’s the first.  We’re going to step, we’re going to keep our foot in travel, because that is so critically important. We’re going to be launching awareness campaigns with several different entities. We’re very excited about those. We’re going to help educate pet owners at like child seat checkpoints and things like that. We’re very excited about that. We’re also launching a new program, a new study, we’re working with the university now to develop the testing apparatus that we’re going to need to do this. We’re very, very excited about where the future holds for CPS.

Yes, that’s really exciting to think that this has become such a passion for your newfound, as you said, niche that is just completely wide open. There’s nobody that’s holding them accountable and nobody that is certifying that these things do what they say they should.

Right, and pet owners don’t even think about it. It comes back to the fact that, pet products are not classified as consumer products. So when Congress went through and, they classified consumer products, as one thing you have the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has oversight, and they do. They manage recalls, they mandate recalls. This is all federally mandated stuff, right, in the pet products space. It’s the opposite. There’s no one out there. We have had some consumers where we had concerns about pet products that could injure pet owners. They’re human companion. We would send them to CPSC and CPSC has taken several of those and they have published reports about product the pet products that could injure humans. But they don’t look at whether it could hurt a dog or hurt a cat or whatever.

Do you see some of these things starting to change now that you guys are raising awareness and getting more involved?

It is changing, but it’s a slow. The education component is so critically important for us to help educate pet owners. We educate industry. As I said, we work with brands around the globe to help get them up the curve, and it’s challenging though, because there has to be the drive behind it for them. Pet owners really do need the education if they demand that a product is independently certified. That’s a game changer for us because we want pet owners to say, “Look, if CPS hasn’t looked at it, I’m not going to buy it. I’m going to vote with my pocketbook. I’m going to buy one of the products that has been independently verified for performance.” We’re hopeful that in the future this will continue to grow, and we’ll see more participation from industry.

Yes. Now I know you guys, as you said with the food and travel, right? So the harnesses and also the crates – I myself was really surprised as to how some of the crates performed from some of your testing. What are the other types of products that you see you guys are moving into?

So we’re going to be looking at, just everyday things, your collars, leashes, walking harnesses. We’re going to be looking into toys. We will get into food. We are going to get into so many different areas that, again pet owners take for granted that the products are safe. But we’ve had pet owners contact us from around the globe with product complaints. So we are mounting investigations at a product level now where we will sample the product we have a complaint about, and we’ll see if we can replicate it. Recently, we had a woman contact us and her cat was electrocuted from a water fountain.

Really? We have one of those just in our house.

Yes. We are going to be looking at everything that’s out there. When we get these product complaints, pet owners can help us drive the mission. We’re going to send out a survey here after the first year. We need to hear from pet owners. Where are the areas that you’re the most concerned about? Have you had any problems with a product? If you have, contact us. We need to know. That will help push us forward

Yes, I was just thinking myself, Lindsey. How do you find the time to do all this? This is obviously a passion for you and you’re expanding it into all these new areas.

I’m very tired, Chris.

I totally understand.

Yes this is a passion project for me. I do. I would like to keep my house and keep a roof over my head and feed my dogs so I do have to work a full-time job. We’re not fully funded. I wish we were because then I could focus a 100% of my energies on Center for Pet Safety. We would likely be much further along than we are now, but I want to keep my house, and I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to – It’s just a challenge. But I do nights and weekends, and as much time as I can, I spend on CPS and my boss has been really understanding. I love her. She’s awesome, she gets it.

That’s great. What if somebody is listening to this? What can they do? Definitely, buying right with their pocketbook will certainly help. Is there anything else that they can do that can help this cause?

Yes. We want pet owners to understand the reason the CPS certification program exists. Voting with your pocketbook is extraordinarily important, but also we do need cash flow to continue the testing, so we do ask from pet owners. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research consumer advocacy and education organization. We do accept donations from pet owners and that can be a game changer for us because the more money that we can raise will go into our testing kit. We can take and start doing more in the test labs and develop more standards in that type of things so that we can help not only educate manufacturers and hold them accountable to those marketing claims, but we can make sure products are safe for pets.

Yes, and I know you mentioned some things, but I’m curious, what does a typical week look like for you? You’re doing a lot of stuff nights and weekends, but what kinds of things?

Well, we have a program underway right now with a university on the West Coast. It’s a fully funded research opportunity and we’re grateful to our sponsor who wishes to remain anonymous. We are – I’ll sit down with them, we’ll do check in meetings, find out where they’re going, what data they’ve been able to collect and gather. I will work on contracts and non-disclosure agreements. That’s my thing this weekend if I have to get all these contracts for 2019 signed, non-disclosure agreements signed, so that we can kick-off the new study going forward. It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s responding to pet owners so we get a fair amount of calls from pet owners every week. Either, I’ll respond to them be it by phone, or I will take time to send them an e mail. We have social media. We have questions coming in through social media outlets. It’s just a lot of follow-up with pet owners because they’re very concerned about the products that are on the market right now.

I definitely think you guys were raising awareness to a problem that people don’t always think about unless it’s happened to you. That’s something that’s on top of my mind. I really appreciate the fact that you guys are doing this and that you personally raised this has become your passion and the way that you’re helping animals. Kudos to you for a job well done.

Oh, thank you. That’s very kind. I just don’t want another pet owner to go through what we’ve gone through and when you see what we see in the lab. We’re hopeful at some point that we can do something exhibition testing and invite pet owners and media to some of these so that it’s even more eye-opening when you see it in person. It’s really very, very important. There are lots of stories here to tell.

Yes. Now I remember from many years ago, they just have this thing called the convincer for seat belts. It said in it that it would only go, I forgot, like 20 miles an hour, but just to show you the importance of a seat belt. So demonstrating and people being able to see that, like you talked about in an exhibition style, I think would go a long way to helping them to understand the importance.

Yes, the videos that we have on our website or very eye opening, as you can tell, but you’re not in the room. You’re not in the lab. You don’t see it firsthand. I think the explosive nature of the testing that we’ve done in the crash test space is very eye opening, and it reduces many witnesses to tears when they see the results. It’s just like, “Wow, I can’t believe this. This is insane.” We get varied responses but all within that same realm. They’re absolutely astounded that a manufacturer can make one claim and not have it hold up.

Right. Well, Lindsey, it sounds like you guys have got a lot of things on your plate, a lot of things going on, and a lot of things planned. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up?

We’re here. If pet owners need it, you go to centerforpetsafety.org, do your research before you buy. Right now, we’ve got a certification program for travel products. Now, if it’s not on our list, it hasn’t passed our testing. It’s challenging, and many brands have tried and many brands failed. We hope they come back but it’s up to them if they want to make the investment, or if they simply want to rely on marketing spin. That’s why we push CPS certified, centerforpetsafety.org and look for CPS certified. That’s the best place to start when you’re researching pet travel products.

Yes, for sure. Well, Lindsey, thank you so much for coming on the program today. It was great to talk to you.

Oh, good talking to you, Chris. I hope to talk to you again soon. Absolutely.

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