Interview with Julie Johnson, Creator of the Sport-Style Guide Dog Harness

In September I wrote This post comparing two types of harness for dog guides. As the old saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention. After 12 years of using the same style of harness, I started looking for a new design when a canine physical therapist suggested that the traditional hardened leather gear Greta was used to wearing might be aggravating her shoulder injury. The result of our search was this harness, designed by the amazing Julie Johnson.

Greta, a chestnut-toned German shepherd, stands in profile to the camera next to her handler, Anneliese. Greta wears a black woven nylon harness with a covered metal guiding handle.

After using the new harness for a few months I decided I wanted to know more about this remarkable designer and how she gave birth to such a needed creation. We chatted over email, and eventually set up the interview I have for you today. Julie’s new harness isn’t the only one on the market, but it is the only one I’ve found that takes the dog’s needs into account just as much as the needs of the handler. That’s what drew me to her product in the first place.

So, without further ado, here is the genius behind Greta’s stylish new business attire!

Anneliese: The Seeing Eye, first civilian service dog agency in the world, has been using the same carthorse-inspired harness style for 90 years. What inspired you to design and develop new harness designs for dog guides? What problems, ideas, and resources influenced the design process?

Julie: I owner-train and therefore have to make or purchase my gear. My second guide did not like the leather harness I purchased. She would hide under the dining room table when I got it out. She was physically healthy, wanted to go places and was willing to wear other equipment even things put on over her head. After an extensive process of elimination I was left with only that she really didn’t like the harness. This was quite a while ago.

The internet was young and there were only two commercially available guide dog harnesses, at least that I was able to find.  One she disliked and the other didn’t fit her body type.  So I made my own harness. I lived a very active lifestyle with young kids and a lot of outdoor activities.  I wanted something that was easy care and washable.  The Sport Style Guide Dog Harness was born. Necessity really is the mother of invention!

Anneliese: Service dog equipment is kind of a niche market, but as we’ve seen in the past two decades dogs have begun helping with more and more physical and mental health challenging. How has this impacted your business model and product lines? Do you see a continued growth for this new industry?

Julie: I focus primarily on guide dog users. I am most familiar with guide dogs, the work they do and the function of guide dog harnesses. However, most of the products I sell, leashes, collars, bells, bowls, mats and so on are appropriate for all types of dogs, guide, service or pet.

Anneliese: Who has inspired and supported you the most as you’ve developed this unique product and started your business?

Julie: I get the most motivation from my customers. I love the calls that start with, I have this really weird request”. It will be some unusual circumstance, physical challenge or odd problem to solve. I get the most satisfaction from creating something new to help someone be able to get on with doing the things they want to do. Many of the products I currently offer began in this way.

Anneliese: Do you have a personal connection to service dog handling/ Do you have a service dog, or someone you know that inspired this project?

Julie: Yes, as I stated above I am blind and owner-trained three of my four guides. My current guide was privately trained by a blind trainer.

Anneliese: what’s your greatest concern for the future of service dogs in America?

Julie: I hope that all disabled people will continue to have the ability to choose how to best live our lives, having the freedom to choose how and where to obtain a dog, while maintaining exemplary behavior standards.

Anneliese: What kind of future do you see for your business, and the service dog equipment industry as a whole?

Julie: I intend to always keep my business small. I want to be available to customers. I want to personally know my customers, their needs, goals and dreams. I recently hired a lady, who is also a guide dog user to help with social media, taking orders, marketing and keeping me on track!

She has been an incredibly valuable asset to me. She is helping me grow my business, while keeping to the core mission of providing quality, custom made products for guide dog users by guide dog users. I personally use the things I make so I always feel confident in suggesting them to others. That will never change.

Anneliese: Introduce us to any fur-babies you have at home!

Julie: I have my current guide, Jetta, and my retired guide Monty. Jetta is an 8 year old black and rust Doberman. Monty just turned 14 and is a Lab and Boxer mix. Jetta is very diligent with her work duties, but is strong willed and pretty sure she is right, always!

Jetta, described above, stands in profile to the camera with one paw lifted onto a step which will take her, and her handler Julie up onto a wooden porch. Sporting a classy purple harness, Jetta looks up eagerly to Julie, waiting for the “forward’ command.

Monty is thoroughly enjoying being a very old and very spoiled guy. He is loving doing all the things he wasn’t allowed in his earlier years, eating vegetables directly from the garden, digging, peeing on fire hydrants on his walks, and chasing bunnies!

Monty, described above, races playfully across four or five inches of snow. He springs off his back foot, with three paws air-borne as he leaps toward the camera.

You can check out the sport-style guide dog harness, and Julie’s other products, on her website On the Go

Thanks again to Julie for agreeing to share some of her story with us. As someone who is definitely intimidated yet intrigued by the idea of training her own service dog, I consider her legacy a truly inspiring example that I might someday follow. I also look forward to what the next couple of decades of need-based innovation will bring to the service dog equipment industry. The fact that there even is such an industry kind of blew my mind earlier this year. But…well…why not?

I believe this industry wasn’t possible before the internet because communication between the scattered blind population was prohibitively complicated. But now we meet in forums, on social media, through blogs, and we discuss our needs and struggles, share unique ways of solving these challenges, and inspire each other to ask better questions that can change the world.

Until next time, your favorite blindfluencer will be working up great new content for you and putting the final touches on her new book! Pre-order Here, and comment below with suggestions for more interviews or other content you’d like to see featured on The Dark Side.

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