First Impressions: Biothane Assistance Dog Harness And Other Gear

Hi, I’m Buddy, and I’m a gearaholic. So opened another post on another blog, and I hear myself saying this a lot.

Yesterday, an eagerly anticipated box came (after a bit of post office drama) from Nerissa at Snowflake Craft. In this box was a whole pile of guide dog goodness (plus a couple cat collars). The cat collars are pretty snazzy as well, but I’m really writing about the dog gear.

About Snowflake Craft

Nerissa Cannon at Snowflake Craft makes lots of stuff for your dog, or cat for that matter. If you need a leash, a harness cape, pouch, or collar, Nerissa can probably make you one. Collars are made from paracord. Have a look at her page on Etsy and get in touch to ask her to make something for you. She can make anything custom, with your choice of a variety of colors. Lots of colors. Overwhelming for a guy who is fashion stupid. Fortunately, Nerissa was very helpful in helping me choose.

I first found out about Snowflake Craft from a new Facebook friend, who mentioned they (well, she, really) was making a guide dog harness. Being ever curious, I went on a quest to find her page, and, being terribly lucky, found it shortly before she was to close the ability to get into the third test group for this new harness. I got my submission in, just in time, too, and was fortunate enough to get into this test group. As an interesting, though unrelated aside, I’m the only guy among the testers. Someone should do a study on the service dog owner trainer population breakdown by gender. There’s probably a grant for that. Anyway, that was in December, and, oh happy day, I got the first harness in our group.

The Gear In the Box

In the box were the following items:

  • Biothane Assistance Dog Harness (guide only version, adjustable T-front)
  • Harness Compatible Saddlebags
  • Poop Bag Holder
  • Two cat collars

Everything looks very well constructed, with no cut corners. The saddlebags were even installed on the harness, a good thing. One less thing for me to figure out, even though I had to figure it out later when getting pictures.

Looking For the Perfect Poop Bag Holder

Always on the lookout for a better mousetrap, so to speak, I also got a poop bag holder in my order. It may well be perfect. It’s a fairly unassuming, compact cloth bag, generously sized to fit a roll of pickup baggies. There’s a place to thread the end of the roll of baggies through, and the bag opens and closes with a zipper. No more trying to stuff a bag into a plastic tube and then find the end to fish through an impossible hole. The holder attaches to the harness or leash or wherever with a mini carabiner, and this harness has two handy D-rings on either side that serve nicely.

Biothane Assistance Dog Harness

The harness can be configured several different ways: for guidework, for counterbalance work, or for both. You can have a straight front, as most guide dog schools use (no martingale), an adjustable straight front, a T-front (more like the Seeing Eye, with martingale), or an adjustable T-front. My harness is the guide dog version in blue, with the handle wrapped in reflective electric blue and reflective light gray paracord, and pewter gray saddlebags and poop bag holder. Handle attachments can also be done a couple different ways, using trigger snaps or a new system that Nerissa calls “pop Strut quick disconnect”. The Pop Strut Quick Disconnect is still being developed, and this is the first harness that has it, I think. Anyway, it looks mostly like the usual American style guide dog harness. It does have a couple extra straps that run from the back strap at an angle to the chest strap, sort of forming a print letter V. I expect these are to stabilize the harness just a little bit more.

So what’s this biothane stuff anyway? It’s some sort of coated material, billed as a leather replacement, but easier to clean and maintain than leather, but offering the strength and greater durability. It feels as thick as the leather used in the leather harnesses I have here, and about as stiff, though also easier to bend and work with than new, stiff, not yet broken in leather. The material itself feels slightly rubbery. Seems it would work nicely in wet and humidity and snow and all sorts of things; some have said they’ve taken their biothane gear swimming in the ocean, so I reckon it’s pretty durable.

The harness itself is constructed similarly to many American style harnesses. Every strap, the girth strap, the martingale, and both sides of the front, are adjustable with standard buckles. The harness closes at the right side with a metal side release buckle, and the martingale attaches to the chest strap with a metal side release buckle. So, instead of threading the girth strap through the martingale and buckling as is done with other designs, you simply snap one buckle at the side and one in the front and you’re ready to go. The handle threads through fairly tall bunny ears, very like on other harness designs. Interestingly, the way the ears are attached appears to help hold the handle up at a natural working angle. While the handle can be laid down flat on the dog’s back, the design seems to encourage the proper handle angle as you’re walking. This may also be in part due to the placement and angle of the Pop Strut Quick disconnects, but if you put the handle down flat, the bunny ears definitely lean back. At either side of the harness, in line with the bunny ears, are handy D-rings, one on either side. I have the poop bag holder attached to one, and I hang a leash on theother one when the harness is hanging up and not in use.

So what about this Pop Strut Quick Disconnect System? It definitely offers great feedback. You can literally feel every move your dog makes. You can feel your dog’s head turning, and every step to any direction. If you’re used to a harness with any play in the handle, this one will take getting used to, as it has none. The connection is quite stiff, with no back and forth movement at all. If you use harness checks to steady down your dog, you won’t get much in that respect. I’m not sure how possible it would be to modify for at least some back and forth movement in the joint. I like the amount of feedback from the much fewer moving parts, but even a little bit would probably be all right, for harness checks and, perhaps more importantly, to relieve a bit of the sudden change if your dog backs up for a traffic check. Sudden stops at least on this first trip didn’t seem to be a problem, and thankfully, we had no traffic checks requiring the testing of this theory. Even if we had, I expect it would have been all right anyway.

This system, however, is definitely not recommended if you have manual dexterity issues. To get the harness handle on or off requires that you pull back the spring-loaded locking mechanism, and, while holding that open (and it will want very badly to close), pulling the socket away from the ball joint on the harness body. This of course is done for both sides. To re-attach, it’s the same, and you (or at least I) wouldn’t find it easy to do this while the harness is on the dog. There is just one thing I would suggest as usability improvements. Make it possible to lock the socket open. For example, pulling the cover back and giving a half twist could lock it open. Then the handle could be easily attached or removed, then twisting the cover back would allow it to spring closed again. In its current form, it almost feels like I need three hands to operate! It’s a good idea though, and I feel very confident it won’t disconnect by mistake as panic snaps sometimes will, at least in my experience, while also eliminating a lot of extra play in the handle connection.

The Saddlebags

What service dog user doesn’t carry a lot of stuff? This one does. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a handy place for extra pickup bags, an extra leash, your keys or wallet or ADA information cards? These saddlebags fill the bill nicely. They fit over the harness and snap over the top. The harness bunny ears hold it in place. The easiest way to attach it appears to be by putting the saddlebags over the harness, snapping the top together, then attaching the harness handle. This makes the harness and saddlebags look like they were purposely built to work together, which of course they were. The saddlebags are about 10 inches front to back, and they’re worn such that there is one bag on either side of the dog. Besides the big pocket on either bag, there’s a smaller outside pocket, with an angled zipper to access it, just right to slide a spare roll of baggies or something like that in. The main compartment of the bag is just long enough to fit my collapsed emergency cane. It’s just tall enough to fit a collapsed silicone water bowl. I have a tie down, an extra leash, and a slip collar in also, with room to spare. The bags, when empty, lie flat against the dog and don’t really take up a lot of space. For extra stability, the bags clip around the dog with their own girth strap that closes with a plastic side release buckle. Additionally, they come with an elastic strap that can snap across the dog’s chest near the harness chest strap.

All of this gear is definitely well constructed. The straps are all padded, especially where screws or rivets might rub against the dog’s body. All buckles are well attached, some even have metal looks to hold the free ends of the straps down. All the hardware looks very sturdy. I feel confident that I’ll get years and years of great service from this harness.

First Walk, First Impressions

In short, I love it. Hilde is still getting used to it, so she was walking a bit slower. As I mentioned, I could feel every move she made. The first walk around the block, for the first half of the walk, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was so distracted. Was it because Alena was walking behind us with Fiona (the cairn terrier)? That was all I could think of, since she usually doesn’t do that. But no, as it turns out, that wasn’t it. I’d forgotten to snap the side release buckle closed on the saddlebags, so there was this strap hanging down underneath her while she walked, probably bumping her leg and making her a little crazy. Once I figured this out and closed it properly, she was her usual self again. I’m definitely looking forward to more walks with this new harness.