Wilton’s Canine Company Celebrates 245 Dog Years (35 Years) in Business
Another business might not be happy to hear they’ve gone to the dogs. But for Canine Company, that kind of review is high praise, and it’s something about which the Wilton company’s president and CEO Jennifer Hill is very proud, as she reflects on a major milestone.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 35 years. In some ways it seems like we’ve accomplished a lot and in other ways it seems like it wasn’t that long ago. Canine Company has directly improved the lives of more than 350,000 dogs and the families who love them. Helping people care for their pets is what drives us every day.”
That passion began with Hill’s parents, Carol and Henry Hill, when the family’s beloved Bassett hound Lucy was hit by a car.
“I grew up in Wilton. I went to Driscoll and Cider Mill and Middlebrook and dogs were such a big part of our family. We lived at the end of Stuart Ln. off Route 33, and I’d have to walk down to Route 33 to catch the bus. Lucy used to walk me to the bus stop every day. She was tragically killed by a car there–fortunately, I was not there. But I was in first grade, it’s one of those things you never forget,” she recalls.
During a brief, two-year period when the family later lived in Pennsylvania, they learned about an invisible fence system, and it was something they wanted to have when they moved back to Connecticut.
“At that point, we had another Bassett hound and a Labrador retriever, and it worked miraculously–we couldn’t believe how successful it had been and knew that there were so many other people with pets in this area that could benefit from it.”
They became dealers for the Invisible Fence brand, and started as a true home-grown business, starting in the family’s basement. Henry’s day job was in New York City, so Carol networked and visited vets offices, kennels, and pet stores. It was a lucky connection that led the Hills to their first client–one who was especially famous.
“My mom happened to visit a place in Westport, showing the owner the equipment, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s so weird. I had a client that came in here recently and he showed me that.’ A friend had given it to him and he didn’t know what it was and what to do with it. And my mom’s like, ‘Oh, wow. Do you mind putting us together? I’d love to see if I can help them.’ It turned out it was Paul Newman and Joann Woodward. They were so excited and thrilled that they started telling their friends and family about it, so, it made for a very interesting clientele after that–a lot of celebrities, a lot of executives and people in the entertainment business,” Hill says.
Their business grew, but stayed rooted in the same philosophy, which Hill says started with her mother.
“That we’re going to be attentive to the client. We’re about keeping dogs safe, healthy, and happy, but we want to make sure the experience the client has is a good one as well. So, we’ve really kind of used that philosophy throughout the 35 years. And it’s been … we’re very client centered and dog centered.”
They moved the business to its current location at 493 Danbury Rd. in 1988. Hill worked for the family business after graduating college, before starting graduate school.
“We were expanding pretty rapidly and Invisible Fence said, ‘You have done such a great job in the metro market, we want to give you the whole northeast.’ So, our market that we have today–New York, New Jersey and New England–was dictated back then, and I moved up to Boston and brought Invisible Fence up to Boston in the ’90s, and spent about eight years there and developed that market. At that point, I really just fell in love with this business. I knew what we do is really special and the relationship we have with our clients is pretty unique. I decided I was going to commit to it and I moved back to Connecticut and have been here since.”
Under Hill’s leadership, the business has expanded beyond the Invisible Fence products in the last 10 years to offer other services–obedience training, mobile grooming, and pet sitting services. And even as the company has grown, it has kept a local focus at the same time. One of those ways is through philanthropy, donating more than $1.1 million to support community projects and pet-related causes.
“We put our energies toward things that help pets,” says Hill. “We donate oxygen masks to local fire stations, everywhere within the northeast, to ensure that fire departments have the appropriate equipment to help save pets in the home–we’ve saved many dogs and cats, and I think rabbits, and gerbils, and stuff like that, too, with our masks. Every time we have a situation where our masks have saved, we celebrate the fact that we were there to help. We also donate countless hours and dollars to shelters throughout the northeast. We’re very much tied to ROAR and PAWS locally, as well as North Shore Animal League.”
Canine Company has also donated waste disposal stations to the Norwalk River Valley Trail.
“It was very frustrating to see how many people kind of take for granted this privilege we have. We should be able to have our pets enjoy it, so it’s as simple as cleaning up after them,” she says.
As longtime Wilton residents, the Hills felt strongly about taking care of the historic buildings their offices occupy.
“We put massive renovation into preserving these historical properties, which is near and dear to my parents. We could have done it a whole lot easier by buying a warehouse somewhere and being in a much cheaper place. But because Wilton at the time had a requirement that you could only move a historical property from Wilton in an effort to expand your property, so all of our buildings are barns from various places in Wilton that we dismantled, brought here, and reconstructed,” Hill explains. “We work with [architect] Rob Sanders and we’ve won awards for our work on these properties. But we really tried to keep in character with the history of Wilton.”
Hill is also proud of the company’s philosophy about being green and energy efficient. “We use Priuses and our vehicles, we’re looking at electric options now–things that we can do to be good to the community, to the environment, as well as meeting our objectives of keeping pets safe, healthy, and happy.”
While her parents, Canine Company’s first two employees, have retired, there are now 150 people working for the business. Hill says that with their help, she looks forward to the next 35 years and beyond.
“When I was a kid growing up in Wilton, there were a lot of animals in the streets, dogs and cats. And I saw a lot of tragedies occur. Not only did I experience some, but you would see dogs running around and you don’t see that as frequently anymore. I’d like to think we had a role in that. Really keeping that focus on keeping our pets, helping our clients have their pets, keep them happy, enjoy their relationship with their pets–if we can find other solutions to that, we will definitely explore it. People love their pets and they treat them like family, like we do. So, we want to help make that easier as their lives get busy, so that they can have that rewarding relationship with their pets.”
The company would help support a dog park if the town of Wilton opted to move forward with the idea that periodically gets mentioned.
“If it happens, then we will support it in some way, shape, or form,” says Hill. “We’re right now working with the town of Weston to help them with theirs. Look at the Norwalk River Valley Trail and how wonderful that has been for dogs in Wilton. The town of Wilton’s got to do what’s right for what people want to do. If the town of Wilton decides this is a good move, we will be there to support it for sure,” she says.
The company marked the milestone anniversary with a celebration last Friday, Nov. 16. State Senator Toni Boucher presented a citation recognizing the company’s many contributions over the past 35 years, from creating jobs to preserving historic properties to supporting community programs. Through everything, says Hill, Wilton is a big part of who they are.
“We’ve chosen Wilton to be our headquarters because it’s our home. It’d be cheaper to go somewhere else, but this is who we are and where we want to be.”