By Tammy Ayer, Yakima Herald-Republic

Selah, WA (AP) – Cruiser the Labrador retriever is one hard-charging canine. He loves running fast and crashing into scrub to bring game back for his favorite person, Mark Meyocks.

One such crash during a 2015 hunting trip required six staples to close the puncture wound in his chest. When Meyocks asked the vet if Cruiser could head back out so they could finish their bag limit, the vet said yes, providing the dog wore a neoprene vest for protection.

But the rubbery vest, designed to protect a dog from the shock of cold water, was too hot and it rubbed Cruiser’s upper legs raw as he continued his single-minded charges into the bush.

That gave Meyocks an idea – which prompted him to buy a sewing machine, create a company and invent a protective dog vest now sold by outdoor stores from Yakima to Missoula, Montana, as well as online retailers, including Amazon Prime.

And Meyocks is in talks with a national retailer interested in selling the vests online this fall, just in time for hunting season.

The vests come in two highly visible colors – orange and pink – and four sizes to fit dogs ranging from 25 to 100 pounds.

CUGA vests, an acronym for Cruiser Upland Game Armor, offer lightweight and durable protection for a dog’s chest and back, sides and underbelly. They feature a 1000 Denier Cordura double-layered breastplate and a generous swath of fabric fastener down the back for a good fit. They’re not just for dogs working hard in fields and trails in rough country. Some dogs play hard, too.

“My vet has a real hard-charging dog. It’s not just for hunting,’’ Meyocks said.

An affable if intense dog, Cruiser is fine with relaxing nearby, but he prefers to put all his 64 pounds behind following every command with precision.

Cruiser is 51/2 years old; he was Meyocks’ 60th birthday present to himself. The two have been inseparable ever since Meyocks got him at RJ Retriever Kennels of Toppenish. And Cruiser can barely contain his excitement when Meyocks puts the vest on him.

Meyocks and wife Renee, both natives of Iowa who met in Portland, moved to Yakima from Las Vegas in 2015. An enthusiastic storyteller with a background in marketing, he has sold steel and stocks and has created and headed trust departments. Meyocks continues to work with clients nationwide on investment portfolios and appreciates his wife’s patience with his efforts to develop and perfect CUGA vests.

“She’s been very supportive of the project,’’ he said. “I’ve learned so much.’’

In fact, Renee is the one who encouraged him in the spring of 2016 to create a company to promote and sell his products.

At that point, he had been making vests to fill orders after creating his own prototype when nothing else on the market would do.

“All I kept seeing were nondescript vests, with all these belts, buckles, snaps – junk. This won’t last a week,’’ Meyocks said. And most were made overseas.

With the guidance of the owner of RJ Retriever Kennels, whose parents were a tailor and a seamstress, and his 85-year-old mother, also a longtime sewer, Meyocks created a vest, trying different fabrics and designs. Once he settled on one model, he started making them on a Brother sewing machine amid his hunting gear in the garage. That was the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016, when he obtained a registered trademark.

“I was making vests like crazy for people that were buying them,’’ he said of what were mostly custom orders at that point.
Pogo the miniature horse
But supply couldn’t keep up with demand, so he found a fabricator in Spokane, Robinson Windword Inc. With a label supplier, union printers and a contract sewing company on board, he started reaching out to hunting and outdoor supply stores.

“We had gotten an order from Runnings’’ outdoor store, which ordered 140. So Meyocks ordered about 250. “They moved very well.’’

Meyocks manned a CUGA booth at the 2017 National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic, which took place on Presidents Day weekend in Minneapolis. That went well, too.

“I sold 72 vests,’’ he said. “I stopped at Bob Ward’s (Sports & Outdoors) in Missoula and got a commitment to buy, and Pheasants Forever has 60 vests. They purchased them and embroidered the Pheasant Fest logo on the side.’’

By that point, the Pheasants Forever Yakima Chapter 311 knew all about CUGA vests. Meyocks, a longtime member, had made one for president Randy Cline’s dog Smokey, who has since passed away.

“Our dogs … they’re jumping through brush and twigs and barb-wire fences. They’re just bred to go all out,’’ Cline said. “They have one speed – get that bird as quick as they can.

Cline spent $500 on one vet visit for Smokey, injured out in the field before he got his CUGA vest.

The CUGA vest that Meyocks made for Smokey is still too big for young Belle, Cline’s latest dog. But it will come in handy when she grows into it.

“She’s just a retrieving machine. They’ve got tremendous energy and they just want to please their owners,’’ Cline said. “The more protection I can give my buddies, the better.’’

Photos: Cruiser wearing his CUGA vest; Pogo with his prosthetic leg