Mike Welch can still recall the very first festival at which he and his family started selling their handmade dog collars and leashes under the name Tahoe Dog Gear. It was 2015, and they’d set up a booth at Made In Tahoe, hoping to sell a good number of the 50 or so they’d brought. A short time into the Squaw Valley event, they found themselves hustling to sew and assemble on the fly as the demand was far greater than they’d imagined.

“As people were ordering, we were making collars. We were telling them, ‘Come back in 15 minutes and we’ll make it for you,’” Mike recalled.

A few years in, the Welches now have a seamless process, designing and assembling in a small workshop in their Tahoe Donner home, while the hand-sewn portion is done in Tahoe City. Chances are, if you’ve been out and about on the trails in the region, you’ve likely seen dogs sporting some of Tahoe Dog Gear’s trademark Tahoe-inspired designs.

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As daughter Michaela was about to graduate from Truckee High School in 2015, Mike wanted to help her make her way into the vocational world. Tahoe Dog Gear seemed to be a great place to start.

After graduation, Michaela sought to pursue a certificate in College and Career Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. A two-year, non-degree certificate program offering a college experience to students with intellectual disabilities, UNR’s Path to Independence Program looked like the perfect fit for Michaela, who has cerebral palsy and a bilateral hearing impairment. With a price tag of $16,000, the Welches were contemplating ways to defray the tuition cost when a neighbor suggested holding a fundraiser.

Animal lover Michaela started to research possibilities, and on Pinterest came across the classic idea of a kissing booth. The only thing better than a kissing booth, she thought, would be a dog kissing booth: Donors would get dog kisses in exchange for their contributions.

CRUZ CONTROL: The Welches’ 5-year-old golden retriever, Cruz, models one of Tahoe Dog Gear’s latest collar designs. The collars and leashes are all made of polyester, which is naturally water repellant. Unlike Nylon, they won’t get smelly after hours of swimming in Tahoe’s lakes and rivers. Courtesy photo

“The dog kissing booth ended up being a premise for people to make donations toward her going to this program,” Mike said. The project came to be known as Kiss for Independence.

In the end, Michaela’s idea raised about $9,000. Meanwhile, the dog collar business was growing.

“The idea of this business was that Michaela wants a career with animals,” Mike said. “So this was an opportunity for her just to get out with people and just be part of that social atmosphere of people loving animals.”

Michaela, as it happens, has aspirations of becoming a veterinary assistant. She’s completed several courses at UNR and is taking one at Sierra College. She’s also volunteered at the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe and Tahoe Integrative Veterinary Medicine, and plans to continue doing so as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

Her volunteerism wasn’t the only thing affected by the pandemic, however. Festivals bring in 85% of Tahoe Dog Gear’s annual revenue.

“That was a big crusher last year for Tahoe Dog Gear,” Mike explained. “Like everything [during the] pandemic … online sales went through the roof and they tripled, but our online sales are so miniscule compared to doing a festival event. [We] do two festivals and that equals our annual online sales. So, the festivals are really the place where people know us.”

As pandemic restrictions are eased, and life starts to go back to normal, things are looking up in the world of Tahoe Dog Gear. The father-daughter entrepreneurial team is excited to get back out on the sales scene. Even though their dog accessories are sold in various retail locations, from Truckee to South Lake Tahoe, festivals are the lifeblood of their business. But it’s not just about money. Working festivals has been a huge boon to Michaela’s confidence and her people and life skills.

This chance for Michaela, who turns  25 on June 20, to interact directly with people, has helped her to confront her two main challenges. For one, she’s hearing impaired, so she has to focus hard on conversations with others to understand what they are saying. She’s also had a tough time with numbers, but working the booth has helped her understand how money works because she’s had to learn to calculate how much change to give back customers.

“She’s gone from not even being able to deal with the money to, now, she’ll figure it out on the calculator and figure out all the change,” Mike noted. “It’s been a great process for her to go through, to learn real life skills that she’s going to be using for the rest of her life.”

And Michaela will soon be putting those life skills to good use. She’s scored a place at the Truckee Artist Lofts, which will bring her closer to the action of downtown.

“I’m excited about that,” she said with a smile, beaming about her dreams for the future.Ju

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