Flashback Friday: First Solo Trip

Original Post Dates: 5/30/2021

Prada and I walked past Shannon, her former trainer, without hesitation for the first time today! I can’t tell you what a sense of accomplishment this gave me. I finally feel like I’ve proven myself worth of Prada’s loyalty. I’m sure Shannon would have congratulated me, but she was too busy not engaging with Prada. I felt the love, though.

 Prada ate like a lab this morning–I’m so excited! I think we’re finally settling into a routine. 0530 a.m. I get a wet puppy nose in my face saying “good morning, play?” We play for about five minutes while we wait for a kibble delivery, then we eat (all of it today!) dry food, then get a drink, and head downstairs to park.

Prada and I and another team completed our solo routes today. We traveled a prescribed route through Morristown, trailed at a distance by an instructor who would, of course, intervene in the case of serious safety hazards or emergencies. But we, the human members of our teams, were responsible for giving directions and collaborating with our dogs to solve problems like construction zones, cars ignoring traffic signals, and other dog-walkers.

This exercise is supposed to be an evaluation, not a test. Trainers look for our strengths, and areas we need to improve on, so they know how to prioritize the remainder of our time at The Seeing Eye. The feedback Prada and I received ran more or less along the lines of “great problem-solving skills” and “I wouldn’t change a thing, just keep practicing.”

As a more experienced handler, and knowing that my trainer was relatively inexperienced, and of course with an imperfect memory of that experience I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently if we’d been given more nuanced feedback. Prada was a great companion and solid worker, but I often felt that I wasn’t able to instill the same focus and precision in her that I’ve experienced with Greta.

Our feedback also included the question of “how did it feel?” My answer? “like a dream. I can’t imagine going back to using a cane.” Using a cane is clumsy and awkward, and you only get direct information, what’s right in front of you. A dog can show you doorways and familiar people (like if you’re meeting someone at a restaurant). With a. cane, your progress is impeded by obstacles you have to encounter, identify, then navigate around. With a dog your travel time becomes smoother and faster as the dog simply works around obstacles you never need be aware of.

As a reward for a great run today Brian, our trainer, handed out Kong toys. These are hollow rubber snowman-shaped toys that bounce irregularly, creating an exhilarating and unpredictable chase. Some people put peanut butter or treats inside for the dogs to work on getting out, which can be a great mental exercise, too. Shepherds are known for enjoying puzzles.

I realize this is a very short post but my parents are visiting from out of town and I didn’t previously have time to prepare and schedule a longer post for today. Consider the extra few minutes you would’ve spent reading a gift. Go do something kind for yourself like meditate, take a short walk, or love on the nearest puppy.

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