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Fur-friendly fashion: Creations by Rose McCulligh

by Kelly Waterhouse

FERGUS - Rose McCulligh’s business is going to the dogs - and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Making four-legged fashion creations is no hobby for the seamstress; it’s her full-time gig. What started out of necessity has grown into a business model that proves doing what one loves can be profitable.

More importantly, it can be fulfilling.

Pierre’s Dog Fashions started in 1963 when McCulligh, a busy mother of six, got the idea to take her at-home clothing alteration business in a new direction.

“We didn’t have a lot of money and we had all these kids,” she explained. “I couldn’t go out to work.”

Encouraged by the growth of her alteration business, McCulligh started to create clothing pieces and even decided to enter some of her handiwork in a fashion show for children’s wear. That was the start of everything.

“I had enough material left over from that show, so I made an outfit for my mother’s dog,” she said, adding, “I figured, why not?”

So she made a few more dog outfits just for fun and the response was great.

“First the alteration business took off, then the dog business took off,” she reflected, laughing. “I was a busy lady when I look back on it now.”

McCulligh credits the support of her husband of 59 years, Calvin, who passed away in 2007, for helping her to make the business a success  at a time when most women did not run a business while raising a family.

“Cal went along with me for anything,” she said. “We always worked well together. He was a big help.”

The young couple had lost their young son, Peter  Calvin, to a sudden illness in 1958 and decided to name their new business in his honour, choosing to use the French translation of his name.

It must have been a blessing, because 48 years later, at the resilient age of 83 years, McCulligh sews on.

“I am so lucky. So much of my time is spent around dog people and they are such nice people,” she said.

McCulligh’s product line has grown to include everything from the fashionable to the practical. There are place mats, beach towel outfits, bandanas and “snooties” to warm ears. “Puppy paws” wipe off wet dogs and rain coats keep them dry. There are pyjamas for lounging and even puppy fold-out couches for small dogs.

For breeders there are training panties for day or night urine absorption, dribblers pants for dogs who need it, and the item that makes McCulligh herself giggle, the “humper rompers” for male dog protection.

With more than 80 designs to her credit, including individual designs and accents to suit the personality of owner and dog alike, there is nothing McCulligh relishes more than the challenge of getting the perfect fit for whatever breed of dog patters through her door.

From the lean girth of great Danes to the muscular build of a Rottweiler; from the full fur of a German shepherd to the thin-built whippets, she’s got a look to fit them.

Even the short and stocky build of a British bulldog or the tiny chihuahua is no challenge for McCulligh, whose attitude is, “If it’s not right, I’ll make it right.” Prices range anywhere from $20 to $120.

“The greatest challenge is the great Danes, because the belly is big and wide at the front and then it goes thin at the back,” she explains.

Every dog coat is custom-made, based on the design requests of the dog owners. McCulligh personally measures the pooches for a proper fit, with careful consideration given to adequate space around the neck and waist. Despite having no formal pattern set, Rose knows her coats like the back of her hand.

“I use the very best material and triple layer them,” she said. “I take great pride in my sewing.”

In all her years of business, she has had only one dog coat returned and that issue was owner-error. Satisfaction is always guaranteed.

There may be pride in the stitches, but McCulligh’s dog coats are stuffed full of love, with attention to detail that comes from someone who clearly has a passion for her work.

“You can’t beat the quality of Rose’s coats,” said Jayne Ford, of Fergus. “They are handmade and [strong] around the edges, so they last.”

Ford recently bought a tweed coat for her dog Jozie, a seven-pound shih-poo. Ford believes small dogs need the warmth in the winter, so she wanted to invest in a proper coat that would last.

“This coat is really sharp and very conservative but classy looking,” Ford said. “Rose wanted everything to fit Jozie perfectly. She even did an alteration, so it is truly customized. You can pick the material you want and she’ll make it fit. She puts little details on it too, like buttons, belts, collars, whatever you want.”

Wendy and Dave Smith arrived from England several years ago with their dog Frodo, a 70-pound boxer who was about to experience his first Canadian winter.

“Frodo needed a coat and all the ones in the stores were too small, as he has a very deep chest,” Wendy Smith said. “Rose made us a fabulous army camouflage coat. It has lasted five winters, so she obviously did a good job.”

The fabric choice, Smith joked, was at the request of her husband who insisted that the fabric “could not be anything girlie that might affect the dog’s confidence with other dogs.”

“Rose has a great sense of humour too,” Smith added, laughing as she recalled she even had Frodo model a pair of swimming trunks in a fashion show. “She was even willing to get beneath Frodo to measure him so his coat fit perfectly, and all the while he was grumbling in protest.”

The charm in Pierre’s Dog Fashions is not merely in the product, but in the relationships formed and the experience of connection between McCulligh, her customers and their pets.

“When people come to see the coats, I feel like this is fun for them,” McCulligh said. “People who have dogs are a different kind of people. They are very relaxed and friendly and they sure never forget me.”

How could they? McCulligh’s designs have become part of Fergus folklore, like when her doggie fashions participated in the 2008 sesquicentennial fashion show for the town, featuring Fergus themed costumes on four-legged models.

“[Bert] Crockett was the first manager of the Fergus Pool. All of the kids in Fergus adored him. He always wore white pants, white shoes, a white shirt and black belt and cap. Everyone knew Mr. and Mrs. Crockett, so I knew I had to make costumes of them for the show.”

Adam Fergusson, the founder the town, was also represented in an old fashioned suit, along with Dr. Abraham Groves, founder of the Groves Hospital. McCulligh even has plaids and tartans to represent Fergus colours and some of the founding families who want to dress their pups in their ancestral kilt and tam patterns.

For those who are looking for more formal puppy attire, McCulligh has frequent calls for wedding outfits, from tuxedos to bride gowns, ring-bearers and wedding parties. From the bow tie to the tiara, she’s done it all, including a 17-dog wedding performance on the main street of Fergus. In fact, during the interview, a call came for a wedding outfit for a dog set to walk someone up the aisle.

No doubt her favorite memory is the response she received in 1964, after Rose fashioned a kilt and tam set in the Stewart tartan for one of the corgi dogs of Queen Elizabeth. After researching the approximate size of the dog breed through the Corgi Society of Canada, she sent the suit along with a personal note about herself, her hometown of Fergus and the nearby Royal City (Guelph).

“I remember the day I went to the Fergus post office to send the package to the Queen,” McCulligh said.

Even more thrilling was the response from the Queen’s staff: “The Queen was deeply touched by your kind thought in sending the tartan kilt and tammy for her dog, but her Majesty bids me explain to you that owing to her rules in these matters, it is not possible for her to accept your generous gift and I am therefore returning it to you.”

For Rose, that was honour enough.

Whether it is a proper design fit for a queen or a stylish leather jacket fit for the pet of a Harley Davidson biker or a NASCAR-themed coat for a racing fan, McCulligh has a fabric for it all.

“I always enjoy eyeing up new designs and I love fabrics,” McCulligh said. “I’ve got lots of ideas. I have fun no matter what they are. I get so excited about them all. It’s made me who I am today.”

McCulligh has crafted a reputation she can be proud of, with repeat customers who have become friends spread out beyond Wellington County to southwestern Ontario, Toronto and the GTA, and even into Manitoba.

Most of the work comes from word of mouth; the best kind of advertising. 

“This is what I do and I love it,” she said. “I get to make people happy. They love the coats for their dogs and I love to make them.”

And that’s the dog-gone truth.


January 13, 2012


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