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.

Well, it’s official…

It’s now official, or as official as these things ever are. Which is probably not very. But, while I’ve been working Hildegard in active duty since May, working Leno only rarely, I think i can officially call her a guide dog, not a guide dog in training. I have been doing this, in reality, since May at least, when we went on our trip to visit family and attend a training conference in Texas. There are still rough edges, like “Hilde, for god’s sake, don’t run in the halls!” and “Hilde, now really, you don’t need to pull like a freight train”, and “Make a choice, and be wrong with confidence” (oh wait. She’s actually pretty good at that.) And, with some odd brains falling out issues aside, she’s been doing a great job. If she had a fault, it’s that she is too friendly and social, but as faults go, it’s one we can deal with.

So, this week, her spiffy new name tag, the one with her name and my name and phone number in case she gets lost, now says “guide dog”, and not “guide dog in training” anymore. She, of course, doesn’t know the difference.

So who knew? A few months shy of two years ago, I got this raw tiny puppy with huge feet, and I had this notion that maybe I could get a guide dog out of the deal. Along the way, I had definite plans and ideas about how the training would proceed, and absolutely none of them came to anything. Hilde short circuited my plans for traffic training by showing traffic sense all on her own. Training was very organic, perhaps somewhat disorganized, and I didn’t get nearly the socialization opportunities I would have liked. But in spite of any lack, and in spite of my best laid plans, she came out all right anyway. I’ve gotten nothing but compliments on her behavior from other guide dog users. Yes, she can definitely stick that nose in some unfortunate places, visit with people she doesn’t need to (I am always telling her to stop petting the humans), and of course she will make mistakes, decide to walk down the wrong hallway when the hallway forks, and on and on it goes. But by gosh, we did it, and she’s a wonderful dog and a really good guide. She makes me look pretty decent. I have to chuckle at the people who say “self trained guide dog” instead of “owner trained”, because maybe… this case….it’s true. I sort of feel like I had very little to do with it this time.


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.

Thoughts on… “Did she sign up for this?!”

I know I’ve had very little to say lately.

In part, that’s because I’m sort of processing what’s going on. A couple people have told me that this is not unusual though, so I’m not worrying. Well, not much.

One friend told me that yeah, 18 months old? Yeah, your dog is going to have another round of brains falling out…she’s about due, so don’t worry about it, everything will be fine.

So, yeah, that’s about it. We’re having some regression. It started with not wanting to lie down on the floor of the car. Hilde did this perfectly when we went to Austin, and for a little while after, then a few weeks ago, decided…nah…can’t wanna.

Then, there were portions of some walks where she wouldn’t really want to go. Like she’d do the pokey slow snail crawl. But she’d fly home with all the confidence in the world.

And she’s showing some small fear reactions to some new people who come here. A bit like how she reacted to Sue when we were in Massachusetts. Barking, turning her head so as to not look at them, backing away. Most recently,this happened with Melanie’s grandfather, who is a pretty big guy, and I think maybe she just hasn’t seen many of those, and certainly not in our home. I hope this doesn’t generalize to outside of home, and so far it hasn’t, but it makes me sorry I was unable to get more people over to visit her when she was a puppy. None of that, to tell you the truth, worked out the way I’d hoped. Even for my lack, I think she’s turned out mostly all right anyway.

I should clarify that by “home”, I mean “the place where we are staying/sleeping”, since I guess that’s probably how she’s seeing it. Strange people that look strange in our home? Don’t like it.

So with all of that, I’ve been wondering. Is she already deciding, “Hey, I didn’t sign up for this. I think I’d rather do something else.”? Especially when, sometimes, she reacts to the harness like she’d just as soon not be bothered with it, but if I take it off to let her park on our way, she’s perfectly fine with having it put back on.

So I’ve been sort of watching, and thinking that the time might come where she very definitely says, “Nope, didn’t sign up for this, you’re on your own, pal!”

This morning was such a time. Protested at the harness, did the pokey slow walk, with stopping for no very good reason and dnacing around, then going eventually. Brought some treats to encourage for when she picked it up. When she figured we were going in somewhere, she definitely showed me all the doors and was happy to get inside. Overjoyed, in fact. We had our lunch, and she did beautifully going home, well, apart from sort of taking a screwy direction across the parking lot, but we worked that out. Parking lots are hard, as is keeping a straight line and keeping her from veering into ones that are flush with the sidewalk, as she tries to find a building or something to follow, but I digress slightly. Anyway, beautiful trip home. So i’m thinking,OK, she likes going home, but not going out. Is this nearly successful, though failed in the end?

And then we went out this afternoon so I could get a haircut.

Apart from needing a little initial encouragement to keep her pace up, it was perfect. When I asked her to turn right as we were looking for the entrance to a parking lot, she showed me that she couldn’t, several times, until she could. Beautiful work there, even across a parking lot, beautiful work home, apart from running the curb out of the parking lot, but I’ll take it (yes, we reworked it).

True, we haven’t gone out every day, and that’s all on me. We’ll see, and I’ll keep an eye on things.

So with all that, I’d been thinking, and wondering, if maybe Hilde’s decided

Hilda’s First Out of Town Trip

Our trip to Austin for the AccessU conference is nearly over. Well, the conference is definitely over, but Hilda and I are flying home tomorrow, carrying a lot more stuff than we came with. And a lot more other stuff, too.

Interestingly, the flying was no big deal at all. I’m getting a little ahead of myself though.

Riding Uber to the Greyhound to Buffalo was routine. Old hat. No big. Riding the bus to Buffalo was new, as it was Hilda’s first time on a long-distance bus ride. She handled it like a pro. Upon arriving in Buffalo, we learned that there was actually a bus to the airport, which was a lot cheaper than taking an Uber, Lyft, or cab, and it wasn’t a long wait. The bus dropped us, and we had no idea where to go to get to the airport, but eventually, after parking Hilda, we found some assistance.

Hilda had an encounter with the escalator, and she was still nervous about that and backed away. The person walking with us noticed this and pointed it out. I got on anyway, and Hilda followed.

We got lots of compliments on Hilda. Well, there was the one person who told me I needed to give her a good brushing as she was shedding, but I already knew that, and anyway, they shed no matter what. No big deal.

The theme for this trip, at least where guiding is concerned, was distraction. She was very distracted and stimulated by everything. This meant that she really wanted to go everywhere at once. “Forward” might start out forward, but it might as easily mean a shart left or right, or one of those eventually. The good news is that she is both easily distracted by new things or new people (of which there were lots of both), but she’s also very easily redirected. Age and experience should settle her down; it’s done wonders so far. We also need to work on inside walking speed. All of these things got better as the trip progressed.

Flying was no big deal. She did it like a pro, even slept through part of the flights. When we hit Austin, another passenger asked if he could walk us to where we were going, so we had some nice company. He was so impressed with Hilda, and that I was training her, that he wanted my mom and Norman to take his picture with us. That was kind of unusual.

Really, her public behavior was very good. She settled down under or beside chairs at restaurants like she’d done it all her life. She’s getting better about not visiting people in harness. (In fact, I’m starting to see a bit of the GSD aloofness, as she just sometimes didn’t show much interest in some people. Like our niece Lily.) She wasn’t unfriendly, but she was more interested in other things. She’s curling up in the floorboard of the car, again, like an old pro.

Guiding is another matter. While distracted, she’ll go off anywhere, because, well, distracted. But as with other things, once she gets the idea and settles into things, she’s great. She had some touble finding doors sometimes, but again, as time went on, that got better. Clearance errors through doors is becoming a thing, and I’m not sure if it was because she didn’t want to run over whoever was holding the door, but Leno did this for ages while I had him, so I’m not awfully worried.

She is definitely showing the GSD finnicky eating thing. I still have a full gallon Zip Lock bag of dog food, untouched, which would be roughly three full days’ worth of meals. She’s definitely not suffering, and maybe her dietary needs are changing and she doesn’t need as much food, or maybe she’s a bit out of sorts with the changes: new environment, new people, new places, new everything, and she’s stressing a little, and that’s how it expresses. Speaking of expressing, she’s getting used to parking other places, and no loose stools or such like.

Anyway, lots of compliments on her behavior. Lots more on her striking good looks. Many compliments on her work, and lots more people noticing that she is young and energetic and sometimes, a bit distracted. Though lots of people are still impressed given her level of maturity and tender age. A couple of my guide dog using friends said she’s probably the nicest GSD they’ve ever met. Reckon that means I’m doing something right, and more, she’s just a darn good dog.

Tomorrow is a long travel day, and we’re looking forward to meeting some of Hilda’s extended family. We’re also looking forward to getting home.

Adventures With Escalators: Dog Trusts You?

Finally, after only talking about it for ages and ages, I’ve gotten Hilda onto an escalator. My intention was to do it before we went on our trip to Austin for the AccessU conference/seminars, and time started getting short. Amazing how that happens.

Well, we had an adventure even getting there. Missed the first bus we tried to catch, so went to another corner to catch a different bus. This particular corner, it turns out, is kind of icky. It’s all flat, for one, with little to no definition between the sidewalk and the street. It’s also like a five or so way intersection.

So the bus comes, and for some reason, I can’t tell exactly where it is. In part because the engine’s in the back, in part because the street is quite noisy, in part because, I don’t know, because. So we find…something…which I believe is sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, but I had no clue what it was. Next thing I know, there are people coming up and asking if I need help crossing the street. No, I just need to catch this bus. Thought I heard one, where is it? It’s behind me? What the actual hell? Yeah, I think what I found before was the bike rack on the front of the bus. How totally embarrassing. So this person waves the bus to stop, because he’s fixing to leave, and walks me around the front of the bus to get on. I get on and then hear someone calling me. “Hey Buddy! Where you going?!” It’s Sharon, Hilda’s breeder, who just happened by. And she’s going my way and offers us a lift.

We got to the mall, and Hilda zooms up to the door. When we got in, we had to rework racks of clothes that she kept walking me into because this is all so new and exciting. Eventually, I hear an escalator and go that way. We heel on, we heel off, we go back down, and it all goes very well.


“Sir, are you OK?” asks the lady who I assume works there.

“Umm. Yeah, I’m OK.”

“Because the security guard doesn’t want you riding the escalator with your dog. You should really be taking the elevator.”

“Oh really?! Why?”

“He doesn’t want your dog’spaws to get caught in the escalator.”

So I assure her it’s going to be fine, and anyway, better that I teach her on these escalators than on the escalator at the airport between flights. Funny thing, I never heard from that security guard directly, and anyway, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, so we went up and down a couple more times.

Hilda was reluctant to approach the escalator after we got off the first round. She whined a little, too. The important thing, howeger, is that she did it anyway, even though she was clearly a little afraid of the thing, and definitely nervous about it.

And here’s the thing, and it’s a thing you never hear about at guide dog school. You always hear “Follow your dog”, “Trust your dog”, and things like that. Absolutely, all very important. You never hear anything about your dog trusting you, which is just as important.

It hit me like a ton of bricks though. Here’s Hilda, who is definitely afraid of this new thing she hasn’t seen before. It moves. It probably feels funny under her feet. She doesn’t like it. She even whined a little while riding it. But she swallowed her fear and did it anyway. That, dear friends and others, is trust. And it’s really pretty amazing.

The rest of the trip was pretty anticlimactic. Just a lot of walking around the mall, and a hamburger, then a walk home after a bus ride.

This trip to Austin, with her first airplane flight and a long day of traveling, is going to be interesting.

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.

Yesterday’s Day Out

Yesterday, we had a whole day out with Hilda. I was scheduled to do two technology presentations at the Sight Center of Northwest PA, one for kids in the morning, and one for adults in the evening. While the prsentations, or seminars, or whatever they ended up being, went pretty well in my ever so humble opinion, Hilda’s first full day out also went pretty well.

We took Uber there and back, and she found the front door without a problem. Of course, inside the building, which is a little small, she wanted to run, so she would often miss turns, or want to go some direction instead of the direction I wanted her to go or that we were following, but she is really very easy to redirect, requiring very little in the way of leash correction for things like that. Hardly any, to tell the truth. We got all sorts of compliments on how beautiful she is, how friendly, how curious she is about everything around her. One comment was that she looked lik being still was very hard for her, and indeed, I think it is, especially in a new environment with things going on. Still, she did it, even with the supersonic shepherd whine, but she did. And the one time she got up because I didn’t have my foot on her leash and she wandered off to have a little walkabout in the apartment area we were working in, she immediately came back when I called.

She also definitely knows “inside” and “outside”, but backtracking, maybe not so much. We went out to park (she didn’t want or need to as it turned out), and when we went back inside, rather than going back throughthe door that we went out of, she went all the way around to the front door. Which meant another ride in the elevator.

Ah, the elevator. It must have smelled funny, because the first couple times, she stopped to sniff the carpet right inside the door of the elevator. By the third trip in it, she was a pro.

Things to work on are the same things to work on, namely, speed inside and pull. Because she wants to go go go, she would sometimes miss a turn into a door that we wanted. None of this is really unexpected, and everyone seemed impressed with miss Hilda. I’d certainly put her behavior up against many very young, very green guides out there, and maybe even some older more established ones. Although, yes, we definitely need to tone down the Little Miss Social Butterfly action.

All in all, very pleased.

Next report, our first walk with her new harness, which just showed up. Can’t wait.

Brilliant, followed by…what?!

There really isn’t a lot to say about this trip, which of course means that I’ll take forever to say it. Gotta be me.

Hilda for sure needed a walk today, so off we went to nowhere. Just down to 29th and Cascade by the elementary school, up to 36th over to Washington (maybe four very long blocks west), then back home over 32nd. It’s a fair haul, anyway. We’re still working on moderating pull, but that’s getting a lot better.

Distractions, oh yes. First, at 31st and Cascade, we encountered a dog out for a walk with its human, and Hilda was interested, though she didn’t take off to go visit the dog, even though the dog certainly had her attention. We still got across the street OK, but it did take a bit of persuasion, though not much, to get her going.

There was one bit of brilliant reasoning on her part further on. A block before Washington, on 36th, there was something about this curb approach she didn’t like. I’m not sure if they had dug up part, or if we were just by a storm drain, or what exactly. I can tell you she stopped shot of the curb, and I could tell that the pavement went down for some reason, and Hilda didn’t like it. So she went around the corner, got up on the sidewalk from the side, and went on. All on her own, on her own initiative.

There were several times when she thought “Forward” might possibly mean “Left” or “right”, because those were maybe more interesting directions, but fortunately, she is very easy to redirect, and she didn’t really insist. When she did, ultimately she was right about it and ended up going my way anyway.

Another time, we crossed, and she missed the curb and was walking down our parallel street for a few feet. She realized the error on her own and took us back to the right and onto the curb, again on her own and with no prompting from me.

At 33rd and Washington, we hit a snag. I’m not sure exactly how this worked, if she veered onto some other part of the sidewalk, or what, but we hit a curb, and she was very reluctant to step off it. Eventually she did though. … And then the crossing wasn’t quite right. So we turned around to cross back over and rework it, except we diagonaled. Or…umm, well, we did something, anyway. Trying to rework *that* really made things even more confusing, so we eventually just found our way to where we were supposed to be going in the first place and went on with life.

Right before we got back to Raspberry and the left turn to our block at 30th, Hilda very suddenly lunged to the left. Something really, really got her attention. I’m not sure what. Maybe it was one of the kids that I heard a few minutes later commenting on my nice dog. Maybe it was something else entirely, but that was not at all a typical reaction from her. She sprang forward towards something else a bit closer to home, too. I think this was perhaps tired brain. I don’t think it was anything aggressive, certainly if she was trying to visit the kids, they didn’t seem too upset.

Another successful trip

This time to Circle K. She hasn’t been there with me in several months.

This is another easy route, with mostly a straight shot. It does, however, present a couple challenges.

We live at 30th and Raspberry. The route is from our house to Raspberry, left on Raspberry down to 26th, take a right, and walk several long blocks to Cherry, where theCircle K is. At the corner of 26th and Raspberry is Elmwood Auto, a small used car place or some such. (Elmwood is the next block over to the east, go figure.) It’s very tempting to accidentally end up where some of the cars are parked there at the corner lot. Fortunately, we avoided that pitfall and walked up to the corner. Actually, Hilda felt the need to investigate the light pole at the corner. Gave it a name but not much attention. This may be something to work on at some point.

Took the right. At the second long block, between Cascade and Plum, we somehow managed to angle into what I assume is the furniture store parking lot. She did it so gradually and so smoothly I didn’t notice. She did notice, however, when we started getting to an obstacle, and she took the left back towards the street all on her own. We then had to work the crossing at Plum several times, because she kept missing the blended curb. I’m not sure what had her attention, but it wasn’t kids playing basketball like it was yesterday. Praise big time when she got it right!

The next crossing was Liberty, which is a nice busy light controlled, though very straightforward crossing. No problem. Easy peasy.

We got to the store. No worries, no trouble. She tried to greet some guy in line, looked around a lot, but stayed right with me and mostly stayed sitting in the store.

Pace and pull on the way up were nearly perfect. On the way back, there was a more pull, but much better. We even took a slightly different way home, and she handled it very well.

Oh, nearly forgot. On the way up, at Raspberry at 30th, when I asked her to turn left, she did left about instead. We had to do it about four times before she got it. The rest of the time, she did all her turns fine. She’s definitely showing more confidence in her decisions to execute a request from me, even if they’re wrong. They’re wrong less.