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.


We interrupt this streak of not posting anything with a post.

Ooh…a post? Really? Maybe I’ll post about our trip to the NFBP convention next, but this isn’t that post.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten some gear from Julie Johnson, whose site can be found at Guide And Service Dogs. Besides useful information, Julie manufactures a line of some dead useful things at really good prices. You can also buy from Amazon if you like, as she sells there. I’ve gotten a few of them that I’d like to talk about.

I’ll briefly mention the first aid kit, which doesn’t appear to be on her site. It’s a handy zippered bag full of, surprisingly, first aid supplies. There are bandages, ointment, vet wrap, and an emergency blanket. It’s a handy size to stash either in your home or in your luggage for travel.

Next, the collar bells are a pretty good idea for keeping track of your dog around the house, so that s/he will (theoretically) stay out of trouble. Julie sent me a set in trade for an honest review, and then Amazon changed their review rules. Still, I’ll happily give an honest review for them anyway. These are just your standard jingle bells on a nylon strap with side release buckle. The set comes with three sizes: one set with two very small bells, a medium sized bell, and a larger bell, each on its own strap. These would be great for a fairly quiet indoor environment. The bells aren’t very loud, so they wouldn’t be appropriate for outdoor use. The strap is only a couple inches long, with the plastic side release buckle closure, sort of like the buckles that snap your backpack together. Be aware, however, that these buckles are very small, so if you have dexterity issues, you may have trouble with them. The set I have is not adjustable, but Julie is thinking about making some that can be shortened if necessary. These would be most appropriate on a flat collar; just put the strap around the width of the collar and close, letting them hang down. I don’t think these would work very well with a slip collar, though they might with a martingale collar. I can usually hear these, when Fiona isn’t barking loudly, or if Hilde is not in stealth mode, so they’re pretty handy. I’d probably get louder bells, just because we have some loud household members, but it wouldn’t matter a lot, because this dog can move unbelievably quietly.

There are two things that a guide dog user must have. OK, three. One is a collar of some kind. Hilde wears both a flat collar, for tags, and a training collar, either a toggle collar or a prong collar, depending. Julie has flat collars and martingale collars, but I don’t have either one of those. I do have a collar with Hilde’s name and my phone number on it, in case she gets lost. This collar also has reflective stuff on it. I have a link somewhere if anyone’s interested.

But the other two things that a guide dog handler really has to have are a leash and a harness. Julie makes both out of quality nylon webbing. We’re most of us used to leather, and leather is really nice. I have a leather harness as well, and it’s great. Durable, classy, practical, fairly easy to maintain. Nylon, however, also has advantages. It’s light weight and even easier to clean, and don’t forget, it’s also inexpensive. I’ve used a nylon harness over the past six or seven years on and off. I like them especially for these Erie winters with all the dirt and grit and road salt and heavens only know what. So really, don’t discount the nylon.

First, the leash. You can get any length you like. I prefer shorter leashes, such as the Seeing Eye uses, about four feet long when in its extended long leash length. However, you can get one that’s 5 or 6 feet if you prefer.

Julie does something kind of neat, for which I will take at least partial credit. I say partial because I think there’s a school that does the same thing, but I can’t remember which one.

I’m lazy. So last year, when Hilde was a pup, I called Handcraft Collars to ask if they could make me some guide dog leashes out of tubular nylon. I had to describe what I wanted. So, instead of the usual arrangement where you can hook to one ring for a short leash, towards the bottom snap, and another ring near top, for a long leash, I just had Debbie put in one ring at the bottom, to make a short leash, while leaving a standard handle with the bolt snap strung on the end of the handle. That way, all you have to do to get a long leash is disconnect from the bottom ring. Several months later, I told Julie about that, she said, “Hey, why didn’t I think of that?”, and thus, the Quick Convert Service Dog Leash was born.

I now have one of those, too. It’s a little heavier than the ones from Handcraft. Still, the stitching is quality, as is the hardware. Rather than a standard ring, Julie uses a D-ring. The bolt snaps are heavy duty ones, thicker than the ones on my Handcraft leashes. She uses nylon webbing, which is a bit grippier than the very slippery tubular nylon is, as well as a bit wider. Actually, the 3/4 inch width is as close to perfect as it gets. It’s good stuff, and I highly recommend these, and not just because it was sort of my lazy idea. Sort of. I stole it from somewhere else. Southeastern maybe?

Finally, the harness. I’m a budding guide dog equipment nerd. I love guide dog equipment. I’d love to see all sorts of different harness designs. Even so, I have very definite opinions on what makes a good harness. Of course, it has to be as comfortable as possible for the dog. Ease of putting on and taking off is desirable. A removable handle is a definite plus, and, while I wouldn’t say I’d never have a harness without a removable handle, I’ll always take a removable handle over a fixed handle. One thing that’s an absolute deal breaker, however, is the martingale strap. Ever since I got my first Seeing Eye dog, I have gotten very spoiled by this seemingly simple extra strap that runs between the dog’s front legs, from the belly strap to the chest strap in whatever configuration. Besides giving the dog more to pull into, the extra strap stabilizes the harness’s movement from side to side (so it doesn’t move so much), and makes it harder for your dog to accidentally back out of the harness.

The Sports Style Guide Harness meets all of these requirements. This is the second harness of this design that I’ve owned, and Julie has made some improvements. It’s made with wide 2-inch nylon straps and comes in several different colors. For Hilde, I got it in blue. The harness straps are padded to make it more comfortable for the dog to wear. You’ll notice right away that the design of the harness is different from most guide dog schools. Instead of one strap that goes around the chest from one side of the dog to the other, the harness is made with two straps that run from the back strap, over the dog’s shoulders, and meeting in the center of the dog’s chest at the breastbone. The martingale strap then runs back from this juncture, such that the three straps form something like a print letter Y. You’ll also notice the absence of handle stabilizing loops, or “bunny ears” that are present on most American harnesses. This isn’t nearly as scary as you might suppose. While it does afford the opportunity for more freedom of movement for the dog, the new handle has a much more rigid connection with the harness, so the handle really isn’t in a lot of danger of flipping up too high as it could with the previous PVC handle. Anyway, since there are no loops, there’s less bulk, and less bulk for your dog to have to lie on, which sounds a lot more comfortable. The belly strap is adjustable with a sliding buckle, and closes at the right side with a plastic side release buckle of the sort that you’d use to close a backpack. This buckle is quite large and sturdy.

The handle, as I said, is an improvement over the previous generation. The new handles are made of a flat metal stock wrapped in nylon. It is removable, attaching to the harness with plastic side release buckles. Don’t let that put you off, however; I’ve used a harness with similar handle attachments for a while with no problems. The buckles are sturdy and I’ve never had one disconnect during travel. Julie has also put a comfortable rubber handgrip on the handle, with finger grooves in the front. It’s a very comfortable grip, even for a dog with quite a bit of pull. I’d maybe prefer a bit more of a rounded grip, maybe a little padding under the grip, but even with that, I like it. You’ll have absolutely no trouble following your dog due to “sloppy” handle connections, because the connections are definitely not sloppy and don’t have excessive play in them at all. Highly recommended, especially for the price.

Anyway, if you’re owner training, or if you just need or want alternative equipment, give these a look. You won’t be sorry.

New Harness Description, First Impressions, and First Walk

Hilda’s new harness came today from Circle E. For custom made no stock with this kind of quality, turnaround time was amazingly fast: I put the order in on Friday evening, Arnie started work on the harness Saturday morning, and I had it in my hands, well, today, just under a week after initial order placement. Considering the stories i’ve heard about , that’s phenomenal.


No cheaping out on this thing, that’s for sure. It’s got some definite heft to it, but the weight is nicely distributed. Arnie reckons his harnesses weigh about 2 pounds each for his standard service dog harness, the design on which this one is based, and I reckon that’s pretty accurate.

The first thing I noticed was just the attention to detail and quality. No rough edges, no crooked stitching, padding in the places that padding made sense.

So what’s this thing look like?

The first huge difference I noticed was the saddle. Saddle is a pretty accurate name for it. It isn’t just a back strap about an inch or so wide as on most guide dog harnesses, running continuous with the girth strap. No, at its widest points front to back, this thing has to be a good 6-7 inches, narrowing around the neck area for mor easily getting the harness over the dog’s head. The wider parts sit over the shoulders. Towards the back of the saddle in the cneter, is a D-ring, and to either side of that are snaps to which the harness pouch is affixed. The harness pouch, made of a thin nylon, has a leather strip across the top with a snap in each end and a hole in the center to put the D-ring through. Thus, the pouch lays flat across the dog’s back, almost as though it’s part of the harness itself. Perfect for ID, keys, a phone maybe, what have you. I have a collapsible water bowl in mine, and a plastic bag dispenser attached to the D-ring, along with Hilda’s leash while not in use.

The girth strap goes around from the saddle, also towards the back of the saddle, as one would expect. In the center of the girth strap is a piece of leather, where the two halves of the girth strap attach. Towards the front of this piece, which is padded right where it sits under the dog, two pieces of leather join sort of making a small print letter Y with the martingale strap. That strap runs between the dog’s front legs, to join with the breast plate, padded with sheepskin. A the top of the breast plate on both corners, straps run back to the saddle, over the dog’s shoulders, again sort of like a very wide print letter Y. I should also mention that the saddle is also padded with sheepskin. (You can have the padding left out if you ask for that. Actually, you can get anything you want, because they’re all made one at a time.)

Everything, except the saddle, is adjustable. The side straps that go beside the dog, from the sides of the shoulders forward to the breast plate, are leather and adjust with standard buckles, with holes spaced maybe an inch apart, if I had to guestimate. Don’t wanna measure it. The martingale and the girth strap adjust continuously with ratcheting buckles. These straps are not leather. They’re some sort of plastic. They’re described in the harness description pages as:
The M2 straps are being made by a company which specializes in orthopedic straps. The straps are very durable and come with special ratchet, quick-release buckles which allow for maximum adjustability. The use of these straps has allowed us to lighten the harness and eliminate the big, bulky buckles.

Having the girth and martingale infinitely adjustable is pretty nice. The other nice feature is that both sides of the girth strap have the ratcheting buckle, so you can adjust the girth from the left or the right. In fact, adjust it once, leave one side connected, let your dog step into that side, and then just pull the open side shut until the harness is fitted.

The handle is aircraft aluminium, and completely covered in leather. It attaches with panic snaps, very like the GDF handle I think. The attachment seems to be sturdy, and with no extra play in the handle.

This harness, like other American style harnesses, has the bunny ears that the handle passes through. These ones are pretty tall compared to the Seeing Eye harness. They do a nice job keeping the handle from flipping up too high though.

So how was our first walk with it?

Hilda does not like change. Hilda does not like change at all. Hilda took a lot of encouragement to take a step forward. And another. And then to walk slowly. She was reluctant to go around a car parked in our path, or to turn, at least initially. After a couple of blocks, she gained some more confidence, and by the last block, she was walking at her normal fast clip again.

It’s hard to say, but her pull may be a bit more evenly distributed. Either that or she’s not pulling as much in the new harness as in the nylon one. Her movements are easy to feel, and this thing feels very smooth while walking. The first time we walked out, we had to go back for treats, and at our front door, she somehow managed to step completely out of the harness! I think I’ve got it adjusted correctly now so that shouldn’t be as easy.

Just For Fun

Five months is probably a little early to start, or even contemplate, harness training. I mean, focus…what’s that? There isn’t any, really. OK, that’s a little unfair. In just the past month, Hilda has calmed down a lot. She can even sometimes walk past a cat without trying to pounce on it. She can even sort of sit and let Melanie pet her, but she does end up losing her cool. Even so, Melanie has been able to pet her a little bit, which could have never happened a month ago. She still wants to jump on people, especially new people. She also really wants to be out in front, a good thing for guiding, not so much if you want a dog to walk on a loose leash, which she’ll need to do some of the time. But she really is getting better with that, too. She also comes, some of the time, off leash. We’re working on that, too. Also, crate behavior when I’m gone is improving.

But back to the harness. Recall that I put the harness on just for fun. She’s worn it without the handle a few times, maybe an hour or so during several days. She tolerated having that put on pretty well, and didn’t seem to mind it on her while she hung around the house. Today, I put the harness on complete with handle, and, just for fun, we went for a walk. From the upstairs crate, we went to the stairs, and she stopped at the steps, just like she has been all along. She took a bit of encouragement to go down the stairs with me, and we walked across the house to the back door and out to park. Naturally, I didn’t expect anything like guiding, or paying any attention to me, but it was pretty cool nonetheless, because she really did keep moving quite a lot of the time. She didn’t take a lot of encouragement to move when she would stop to sniff or for whatever reason. We even made it down the driveway and a couple houses down the block. Turning around to go home was another matter, as she wanted to just kind of go everywhere, jump on the neighbor, sniff the front lawn of the neighbor’s house, all very puppy-like and, hey, I don’t wanna go home!

Still, it was pretty cool to have this puppy walking in harness, even if not in actual fact doing much. I definitely see some awesome potential here though.

Hey, if I’m living right, there will be a picture of Hilda in harness, taken a few days before her five-month birthday. Or whatever you’d call that. Hilda in harness  nearly 5 months