It’s not unusual for Ryan Dempsey, owner of the San Francisco upcycled dog leash company Dog Patch SF, to receive notes thanking him and his staff. Though Dempsey liberally uses the word “we” when talking about his business transforming donated climbing ropes into super-sturdy leads for dogs, the “we” is just Dempsey and Oona, the pit bull mix companion who’s with him at his Bayview workshop, his artisan booth at the Embarcadero and road trips to collect bundles of rope. Sometimes, the first-person plural reference will shift to the late Rascal, an Aussie rescue dog who inspired his owner’s first handmade leash and a commitment to donating them to shelters across the country.
Dempsey, who studied product design at San Francisco State University, isn’t the first person to figure out that climbing rope makes a durable, if not impenetrable, leash. But his business model is a bit different, transpiring nearly a decade ago when Dempsey approached a few local climbing gyms requesting their discarded rope. Word of mouth, a cornerstone of Dempsey’s success, resulted in a continuous stream of donations from professional climbers, gyms and retailers like REI and Sports Basement.
“The idea behind this was a combination of the ideals of Patagonia and the giving of TOMS Shoes.” — Ryan Dempsey
To continue the cycle of giving, he created the program Ropes for Rescues, setting aside 10 percent of the rope he receives to make leashes for the climbers’ favorite animal nonprofits — a list that’s grown to nearly 300 shelters and rescues in the U.S., and as far away as Thailand and Portugal. In the eco-minded Bay Area, Dempsey’s sustainable practices and generosity are a hit, as are the stories: Each leash is accompanied by a piece of paper with a short anecdote about the rope’s history. Occasionally, Dempsey receives ropes used by superstar climbers, like Conrad Anker, Tommy Caldwell, Lynn Hill and Royal Robbins, and will charge substantially more than his standard $25 to $30 leashes, then give half the proceeds to the climber’s preferred charity.
“Ryan started donating his recycled rope leashes to Muttville years ago,” says Kristin Hoff, adoptions manager at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, based in the City. “Each time he walked into our shelter, people would light up because we knew a positive interaction was going to happen and we’d hear a loving story about one of his customers who had purchased a rope leash that, in turn, would be a donation to Muttville’s mission of saving older dogs.”
When it comes to giving back, Dempsey says, “I just always thought it makes sense. The idea behind this was a combination of the ideals of Patagonia and the giving of TOMS Shoes.” Even in challenging times, he’s upbeat. The pandemic put a pause on the SF Arts Commission’s Art Vendor Program for months. Even now, he’s only able to set up his booth (which traditionally generates 90 percent of his business) one day a week near the Ferry Building.
Small-business loans are keeping him afloat and, thankfully, he still has his wholesale business and robust word-of-mouth reputation that is peppered with terms of endearment — “kind-hearted soul” … “wonderful” … “sweetheart” — and mentions of his generosity, like the batch of deeply discounted and free leashes he’s provided for dogs living with their unhoused owners at the safe sleeping site at Haight and Stanyan streets.
During his downtime, Dempsey has been pitching in at the Village Project, delivering food to seniors and housing developments in the Fillmore District. He’s also been rethinking his donation process. Previously, when he received a rope, it might sit in his workshop for months before he transformed it into leashes to sell and donate. Now, he prioritizes making the leashes that are earmarked for a rope donor’s favorite shelter, whether or not he’s ready to make a full batch to sell. As for collecting the rope, Dempsey and Oona are fans of open-road adventures and will drive to Santa Cruz, Sacramento — even Southern California — to retrieve large donations. Back home, the rope gets soaked in dog-safe soap, then hand-scrubbed with a specialty scrubbing glove and washed twice in the machine.
Dempsey calls himself a novice climber and perhaps that’s why he doesn’t see the rope as just rope. He visualizes the adventures. On a climb in China in 2019, Dempsey met two climbers from Portland, Oregon, and exchanged business cards. Months later, they surprised him by sending him the rope from their China trip. And it wasn’t Dempsey’s first brush with serendipity. Long before he made his first leash, he was approached by a woman at a cafe on Divisadero Street who wanted a closer look at the dog carrier prototypes he was sketching. She happened to be Megan Johnson, owner of The Animal House Pet Mercantile on Fillmore Street, and encouraged him to stop by the shop when he had a product in hand.
“Ever since he’s been making the leashes, I’ve been carrying them,” says Johnson. “I cannot stress how quickly they go here. Quality-wise they have an amazing reputation because they work so well, and people really love the stories and the donations.”
Retired climber Renee Jung met Dempsey at his booth years ago and ended up giving him her old rope instead of donating it for rug-making. Since the leashes refuse to wear out and there were only so many she could buy for her own dog, Kooper, she says, she now buys them as gifts for friends. “When you are looking for leashes, most of the leashes that are out there are flat nylon. If you put a rock-climbing leash in your hand and pull on that, it’s so much nicer when it lays in your hand and your fingers,” she explains. Plus, Jung says, “My dog loves Ryan. All dogs love him.”
The feeling is mutual. “I love doing this,” Dempsey says. “At the booth you’re automatically at a good common ground with people because you just get to talk about your dogs. I’ve met thousands of people through this, and 95 percent of the time it’s just good conversations. People apologize for showing pictures of their dog, but I say, ‘What are you talking about? This is a perk!’”
For more information, go to dogpatchsf.co.
Ropes for Rescues encourages climbers to donate their old ropes and share the stories of where the ropes were used prior to being recycled into dog leashes.