How Dogs Inspired the Invention of Velcro®

The troubles of burrs during dog walks
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2014
 Burdock seeds cling to the coat of a dog

Last week I veered off into some brush while walking dogs in order to maintain some distance from an untrustworthy dog coming the other way. Heading off the trail from time to time is an easy way to avoid trouble, and I don’t consider it a big deal—usually. This time, though, I managed to take the dogs straight through what must have been a burr convention. We were all covered with these annoying seeds. The soft fine hair behind their ears and along their legs picked up hundreds of them. I removed as many as I could over the hours following our little detour, using my hands as well as combs and brushes.

As I was sitting on the floor counting burrs . . .89, 90, 91. . .173, 174, 175. . ., I remembered reading that it was a similar experience that led Swiss engineer and inventor George de Mestral to come up with the idea for Velcro®. Mestral came back from a walk with his dog, and they were both covered with burrs. He went to his microscope and observed the many tiny hooks that attached to fur or fabric fibers. Inspiration struck, and he decided to invent a hook-and-loop fastener. He called his new invention Velcro®, which he made up by combining the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook).

I did not feel inspired by my walk and the resulting grooming hassle. “Annoyed” is a far better description of my feelings during the arduous process of cleaning up the dogs. It takes so long to remove large quantities of burrs from dog fur, and there are many more satisfying ways to spend quality time with our canine friends. I felt inferior to this inventor who used the experience to come up with an idea for a product that is so beneficial to so many until I learned something more about the day he came up with his great idea.

By his own account, when Mestral returned from the walk, he ignored his dog and went right to his microscope to satisfy his own curiosity about how the burrs attached themselves to his pants. Sure, I may not have invented something useful as did this man over 60 years ago, but I did at least immediately groom the dogs.

That’s what I always do when we get them stuck to us, though Murphy’s Law usually means that it happens at the least convenient times. Years ago my dog ran through a section of burrs moments before taking him to stay with friends while I was traveling. Another time, it happened just prior to a photography session with my dog, which was unfortunate because he always looked better when his tail and ears were NOT stuck to his body with plant parts.

Has your dog ever become covered in burrs at the worst possible time?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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