Nina Ottosson jokingly waved to the hundreds of people roving around the Global Pet Expo, like she was Miss Universe.
“In the beginning, people called me a crazy lady … if you ever think anyone would buy a puzzle for a dog,” she said in her heavy Swedish accent. “Nobody believed."
“So today, I wave at them now.”
More than 20 years ago, Ottosson invented one of the hottest and most beneficial products in the pet world today: pet puzzle games.
The games “exercise” a pet’s mind. It prevents boredom, and the behavior problems that go with it, such as chewing up your entire leather couch, digging to China and nonstop neighborhood watch barking.
The sturdy games require pets to use their natural instincts to “hunt” for food. Using their paws, mouth and nose, they have to lift blocks, turn discs, slide panels and rummage in fabric to find yummy treats inside.
Ottosson’s motto: "Dogs have four legs and one head. All five need exercise daily.”
“If a dog uses its brain every day, we would not have so many dogs in shelters,” she added.
The “ah-ha” moment came in 1990.
Ottosson was a new mom, with two children born 18 months apart. She also was a dog mom, with two Bouvier des Flandres that were used to a lot of training and competition shows.
The American Kennel Club describes Bouvier des Flandres dogs as “strong-willed” and “do best with owners who can devote ample time.”
(Children can be described that way, too, right?)
So Ottosson, feeling guilty about not working the dogs as much, created puzzle games to exercise them indoors while she was with the kids.
In 1993, she launched her business, Zoo Active Products AB, a.k.a. Nina Ottosson Puzzle Games & Toys.
“It was very hard the first 10 years, traveling around showing how the games worked,” she said.
But by 2015, she was a top dog.
Dog Fancy Magazine named her one of “45 People Who Changed the Dog World.” She won the Lifestyle Innovation Award at Pet Fashion Week in New York, and Pet Age Magazine’s Women of Influence Award. Games earned accolades, such as “Gear of the Year” from Whole Dog Journal.
In 2015, her business was acquired by pet product giant Outward Hound, which made the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies in 2021.
Outward Hound had a prominent spot at the 2022 Global Pet Expo, the companion animal industry’s premier event.
More than 700 companies showed off the latest and greatest products at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando this past March.
Booth after booth, company after company, featured games to engage a pet’s brain.
Ottosson was in a prime spot, showing off her classic and latest creations, from the “Fast Food Fun Mat” and “Hide ‘N’ Slide,” to the “Tornado” and “Dog Casino.” Cats had games such as the “Rainy Day Puzzle & Play” and “Buggin Out.”
“You were the first one,” Nancy Bown, Dog-Harmony’s Founder, told Ottosson when they met at the expo. “You were the pioneer.”
“Yes, I created a category,” Ottosson said. “I’m really proud of that.”
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