Dress for Success

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.

Greta is in the old harness and standing at Anneliese’s left side. Anneliese is wearing jeans and sneakers and the two of them are standing on a large pebbled concrete pad. The image is looking down from Anneliese’s point of “view” onto Greta’s back. The strap of the old harness rests behind Greta’s shoulder blades.

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 woman in a red riding jacket, grey riding pants, and black riding boots sands in front of a speckled and grey horse with a thick winter coat. They are standing in about 2 inches of snow near a forest. The woman is using her left hand to hold the reins near the horses mouth and is using her right hand to encourage the horse to raise its right forward leg in a fancy show pose. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

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.

Anneliese is on he knees in front of her service dog Greta, who is sitting and facing Anneliese. Anneliese is using her left hand to hold training treats which Greta is focusing on. While Greta looks at the treat hand, Anneliese is using her right hand to gently lift Greta’s paw into the air, causing the dog’s front left should to flex and rotate in a therapeutic stretch. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

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 old and new working harness’ are side by side on pebblestone concrete. The old harness is in the top of the image and the new one is in the bottom of the image. You can see that while they both have the same idea of design, it is executed very differently. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

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.

We look down from Anneliese’s point of “view” at Greta in her new harness. Greta looks over to her right with her ears forward toward whatever has her attention. You can see how the new harness sits more on Greta’s back than her sides and transmits information up the handle to Anneliese. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

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.

Anneliese demonstrates her previous description of the one-handed hold on the old harness as it would be if she were putting it on Greta to work. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

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.

Anneliese demonstrates the two-handed hold she uses with the new harness to place it on Greta to begin work. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

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.

Official Product Rating:

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

The Zen Pack Leader

Greta’s trot is even, but the nails on her left forepaw are longer than the rest of her nails. I can hear them clicking on the pavement.

Her gait is really even. I can’t feel any limp at all. Her shoulder is so much stronger than it was a year ago.What if she trips on those longer nails/ What if she puts her shoulder out again? Our next chiropractic appointment isn’t until October!

Ah, I’m distracted. Back to Greta.

I can feel her looking to the left because the motion of her neck translates into her shoulder, into the back strap of the harness, and up the handle into my hand. She’s looking straight again. I’ll reward her.

Her saliva is thin, she’s not stressed. I’ll wipe my hand off on her head so she gets a pet and I get a fuzzy towel.

She’s slowing down but I don’t sense an obstacle ahead. Ah, she’s pushing me gently away from the curb. There must be an obstacle I can’t sense. Maybe a low pile of brush. This house always has brush in front of it. Oh, I should call the city and find out what their yard debris removal schedule for my neighborhood is. I’ll do that after I get back. No, I need to feed Greta, then start laundry, then do dishes and make a smoothie, then call the city…

I’m distracted again. I’ll just let all that go and focus on Greta.

She’s slowing down again. We’re near the street corner. I need to decide which route to take. She feels perky today. We can use a longer walk. I’ll go left, and maybe we’ll get to practice walking by that house with the dogs that run up to the fence and bark. I need to have a treat ready to praise her. What if she doesn’t handle it well? It’ll be chaotic and loud and I’ll have to try to redirect her focus and if I can’t get her to redirect I might have to force her away. That means we haven’t made as much progress as I’d thought, and the trainer’s coming next week. Is it really worth it? Are we making progress/ Am I wasting time and money?

I’m distracted again. I’ll focus on Greta.

She’s slower on this street. I can feel the uneven-ness of the slope of the street into the gutter. She’s picking her paws up higher. I’m not sure how I can sense that but I’m aware of it. She’s picking her paws up over grass growing through cracks in the pavement. She’s nudging me right to circle around a car parked along the side of the street so I’ll turn with her. She makes very smooth, tight turns.

This is what successfully applying mindful awareness looks like when walking a dog.

“But your mind is all over the place!” you protest. “That doesn’t look like mindfulness to me…”

The lecturer hosting The Great Courses; Practicing Mindfulness uses training a puppy as a metaphor to explain mindfulness. It’s an example I really relate to! When training a puppy to sit, you place the puppy in the “sit’ posture, then reward it. When it inevitably gets up you don’t yell at the puppy, you don’t get mad, you just put the puppy back into “sit” and reward it again.

No matter how old you are, your brain is still a puppy. It responds far better to encouragement and boundaries than self-criticism. Training it to return to a particular thought or mental posture takes just as much time, and patience, as teaching basic obedience skills to a dog.

The point isn’t to keep my mind on Greta 100% of the time. In fact, I’m fairly certain that would be very dangerous. Our attention is meant to wander, just a little. The point is that I return to her every time I get distracted. I notice my thoughts, and then go back to thinking about Greta without judging myself for distraction or scolding myself for imperfection.

I’ve begun practicing this meditation technique to help me control my concerns about Greta’s Post High-School Stress Disorder, and to help me be patient with the slow, yet thorough route we’re on to total pack wellness.

Rehabilitating Greta isn’t just about re-affirming her skills and training her to ignore distractions. It involves teaching her to redirect her distracted puppy-brain to me, and training me to redirect my distracted puppy-brain to her. With an inward, ongoing, nonjudgmental focus on our function as a pack Greta and I will be able to cruise through the most chaotic, triggering environments imaginable.

A note of caution regarding mindful awareness.

As I mentioned above, our minds are designed to wander a little. It’s part of situational awareness, a necessary survival skill. My brain flits to the sound of a big truck turning onto the street behind me. The street has no sidewalk, so Greta and I step into a nearby driveway to let the big metal beast rumble past at a safe distance. My brain picks up on locational cues and reminds me that a dog has been loose in the yard of a house on the next street and I need to remember to take a different route home.

If I’d simply noticed the sounds and smells and other cues that alerted me to changes in my environment, discarded them, and refocused on Greta we might’ve wound up in trouble. Safety trumps mindfulness, every time.

But brains aren’t infallible. They can pick up on cues and determine that those cues are, in fact serious threats when they’re really not. My brain is absolutely 100% convinced that an enormous lilac bush leaning slightly over the curb and swarming with honeybees is the most dangerous thing in the universe. It once prompted me to drag Greta across the street to circle it at a distance no closer than 30 feet! I think 5 would’ve been sufficient for the bees and me to co-exist without bothering each other, but my brain says otherwise.

Mindful awareness, however, would allow me to make a more accurate distinction between “big truck behind me” and “disinterested honeybees” threat levels. I expect I’ll do better next time we encounter that ominous lilac bush.

Mindful awareness can be applied to almost every activity imaginable, from cooking to coding, sight-seeing to sex, and so much more. It’s a gateway into that coveted “flow state” that breeds creativity and accomplishment and satisfaction so easily. Greta and I haven’t flowed together in over 2 years, and I miss that feeling of contented oneness as we travel expertly through our chaotic environment together. I got a glimpse of it, though, on a recent walk, and I can paw-sitively say our hard work is paying off.

Lessons I Learned From A Chicken

Lesson #1.  I am married to a remarkable man.

Now for the story…

Greta is pretty good about not trying to scavenge “people food.” She respects tables and countertops, doesn’t beg, and even asks permission to enter the kitchen most of the time. But one day, toward the end of her lengthy recovery from her food allergies and infection, I heard the distinctive sounds of crunching and clattering that alerted me to a counter violation.

Greta had snagged the carcass of a rotisserie chicken off the counter and begun pulling it apart, dragging the bones into a dark corner of the front hall. Of course she got a scolding and my husband and I set about cleaning up the mess.

Then my husband asked a very interesting question, a question I think a lot of puppy parents, and people parents, ought to ask.

“I wonder what kind of nutrients she’s deficient in that made her go after the chicken?”

Lesson #2. Good behavior doesn’t suddenly turn into misbehavior without reason.

As a therapist I’ve come to recognize that most aberrant behavior comes from people trying to meet needs in maladaptive ways. It’s rare that someone does something wrong, harmful, or unhealthy simply for the sake of doing it that way. That doesn’t make us any less responsible for our choices, or their consequences, but it does make it easier to change our behavior. If we can understand the unmet need, then we can develop healthier, more effective methods of meeting it.

Dogs don’t have a sense of right or wrong. They understand what is good or bad for them, what is good or bad for the pack, and that’s about it. That doesn’t mean your dog is starving whenever she scrounges out of your trash can; it means she’s a natural scavenger who hasn’t been convinced that the trash can isn’t a good source of food.

So, when Greta committed the rare sin of counter-surfing and targeted the chicken, my husband’s question was an inspired response. Much more helpful to the entire pack than getting frustrated or angry. Greta’s behavior had to be discouraged, of course, but then he asked the question. “What did she need/“

It wasn’t hard to figure out. Her infection had caused skin lesions. Healing skin might need extra collagen, and bones are a good source of collagen. So I started dispensing small amounts of my home-made bone broth every couple of days to aid in her recovery process.

To preserve the line between “your food” and “my food,” I put the broth directly into one of Greta’s bowls and make her ask permission to drink it.  She licks the bowl so clean when I give her broth that I don’t usually have to wash it afterwards. It’s a nice compliment to my cooking.

So, when you find yourself doing something you know won’t help, like snapping back at someone in conversation, reaching for the chocolate chip cookies when you’re in a bad mood, skipping a gym workout or sending that angry email, give yourself a little grace. Then ask the question, “what do I really need?” Do you need to feel safe? Are you burned out and need a day off?  You’re not as lazy, impulsive, or short-fused as you think you are, and once you start asking yourself this question your creative brain gets involved, generating other options for meeting that need. There’s a lot of wisdom buried in our behavior, just waiting to be unlocked.

This mindset can help cultivate compassion for others, too. When I find Greta has misbehaved I can get angry, I can worry about the problem persisting and getting worse. Or I can ask “what does she need/” She can’t tell me, of course, but a little creative thinking can solve that problem, like with the bone broth. This applies to my husband, my friends, family, and clients. Compassion is much more comfortable than frustration.

So, my friends, what do you need? What kind of content would you find most interesting, entertaining, and useful? Share your ideas and creative problem solving techniques below.