This week’s post is going to be a bit technical, but to make up for it I’ve got lots of cute puppy pics.
This year Greta suffered a minor shoulder injury. I’m not precisely certain when it happened, but I suspect it was the result of racing across uneven ground at a dog park. Kids play hard, right? Fortunately, the dog trainer I’d hired to help me with Greta’s behavioral problems also has an interest in canine kinesiology and physical rehabilitation. She taught us some exercises to help strengthen at-risk muscle groups, but also took a lifestyle approach to treatment. She wanted to look at Greta’s harness.
The Seeing Eye issues a beautiful, understated leather harness with reflective strips and the school name stamped into it. It looks professional on any dog, and it’s easy to care for. But this harness, sans the reflective strips, is pretty much identical to the one that Morris Frank, first blind American to use a service dog, designed back in the 1920’s. it’s based on a cart-horse harness.
Horses and dogs may look similar, but their kinesiology is very different. A horse’s foreleg bends like a human knee-joint, with the shoulder only sliding a little and the hoof pointing backward. The joint bends forward.
A dog’s foreleg more closely resembles a human arm, with the shoulder rotating back farther, the paw extending forward, and the joint angling backward.
What the trainer noticed, however, was that the slenderness of the back-strap put pressure directly onto Greta’s spine, and the angle of the back-straps connection to the chest strap didn’t allow for much range of motion for Greta’s shoulder.
So that 90-degree angle between the back and chest strap on TSE’s harness restricts a dog’s natural shoulder motion. The trainer asked me if there were other styles of harness we could use. That thought, however, had never once crossed my mind even after more than 10 years working a service dog!
We did some googling, and it turns out that other people had begun to ask this question in recent years, too. Are there better ways to design harnesses that still transmit information from the dog’s neck and shoulders to a blind person’s hand but better support a dog’s natural range of motion? The answer, fortunately, is yes.
Here you can see that the back-strap attaches higher on Greta’s side, and at an angle that allows her shoulder to move more freely in its natural direction. That back-strap is also half again as wide as the one on the old harness, and has a cushioned underside to help better distribute the weight of the harness across her spine.
The little brown patches you see there are strips of moleskin I applied to areas where the nylon rubbed on Greta’s stomach. Those areas are a little more tender than normal because of her recently healed infection. By the time the moleskin falls off, that area will be healed and she won’t need it anymore. Just another DIY trick for supporting your service dog’s workplace comfort.
This harness looks pretty good in theory, doesn’t it? Support’s the dog’s natural range of motion, each piece is custom-fitted for the individual dog, still nice and professional-looking, with maybe a slightly sportier flare….but do these two changes really make a difference in a dog’s working comfort?
Yes, they do. After several chiropractic visits and a new treadmill routine (yes, dogs can go on treadmills) we tried out the new harness on a walk around the neighborhood. Greta held her head a little higher, picked up her paws a little more, and generally felt more relaxed and confident in her stride.
I could feel the change in her head posture and gait through the harness, and the trainer confirmed my observations as she walked alongside us. Taking the pressure off her spine and freeing up that shoulder made the unnatural business of wearing a harness that much more natural-feeling and comfortable. Just like people, dogs perform better when they’re physically and emotionally comfortable, so it was definitely worth what I paid for this custom piece of equipment.
So it works for the dog, but how about for the handler?
Dog guide harnesses are designed with a very specific function in mind. Information about a dog’s speed, direction, and attitude can be inferred from head and shoulder angle, and that information needs to be relayed through touch to the blind handler. This is done by attaching a stiff handle to flexible joints on the harness. When Greta stops, turns, or leans, her motion is translated through the joint, into the handle, and then into my hand.
The new harness incorporates this concept, but at a different angle. The connection point between handle and shoulder strap is higher, up on Greta’s side. I was a little concerned I wouldn’t receive as much information if her shoulder didn’t move the handle joint in the same way it had previously.
I’ve been using the new harness almost daily for the past two months now, so I’ve had time to get used to the new arrangement, and I can confidently say that while the motion does feel a little different, it is the same amount of information. Think of it like hearing the same sentence spoken in two different accents but the same language. Different, yet equivalent, still comprehensible.
The differences are subtle enough I’m not sure I could put them into words. But there are a couple of other adjustments I’ve had to make that are easier to articulate. For one thing, the buckle on the old harness was on Greta’s left side, whereas the buckle on the new harness is on the right. 10 years of muscle memory is hard to overwrite!
The softer nylon material is, of course, not as stiff as the hardened leather. This means that getting the new harness over Greta’s head is more challenging. With the old harness I’d slip the leash over my left wrist to keep it out of the way, then use my left hand to gather the girth straps, fold them up over the back-strap so they wouldn’t hit Greta in the face, and just slip the opening between the back and chest strap over her head. Once the harness settled onto her back I could release the girth straps, thread them through eh martingale, and buckle them.
But nylon doesn’t hold its shape the way leather does. When I tried this with the new harness the opening for Greta’s head collapsed in on itself, and Greta backed away. Very reasonably, she had no desire to squish her face and ears through such a narrow gap. A little trial and error and lots of dog treats to ensure a positive experience produced a working solution.
Now I slip the leash over my right wrist to keep it out of the way and give me a tangible tether so I can sense Greta’s body orientation without touching her. I gather up the long girth strap and fold it over the back-strap like before, but I use both hands to grasp that back-strap and force the sides of the chest strap open, widening the loop. Essentially, I use my hands to create the stiffness that the leather harness naturally possessed.
It’s taking some time for Greta and me to get used to this new arrangement, but we’re both eager for it to work. It’ll be muscle-memory in a few more weeks, I expect.
I also didn’t know how to account for how the changed height of the handle joint when sending in measurements for this new harness. The two handles are exactly the same length, but the new one joins the harness higher up on Greta’s side, which has the effect of adding about two inches to the distance between me and Greta’s shoulder. At first this concerned me; I thought neither of us would be happy with this increased distance between us. But we’ve adapted very quickly and don’t even notice it anymore.
Overall, TSEs harness design is a good, solid choice. It looks good, it does the job well, it’s easy to care for. But I like the new ergonomic harness better. Its updated structure better supports us as a working team without losing any of the benefits from the original model. I will definitely be ordering harnesses like this new one for all future dogs.
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If you’re working a dog guide and reading this post I strongly recommend you consider updating your harness, too. Our working dogs put a lot of physical wear and tear on their bodies, and deserve the same ergonomic supports that we do in our own working environments. You can custom-order this harness from On the Go here.
In the meantime, if you’ve seen other handle-oriented dog guide harness designs, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to know what other options are out there to support our beloved canine partners. Until next time, I remain your favorite friendly blindfluencer challenging you to appreciate life on the dark side!
All original photographs are courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen