Harness fit in guide dogs

A research team at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) have studied the forces that guide dogs are exposed to during their work to ascertain what types of harness are most suitable.

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

Guide dogs walk under constant tension. A well-fitting harness is extremely important for the animals (Photo: Michael Bernkopf/Vetmeduni Vienna)

A proper harness that enables good communication between the blind person and the dog is an important factor to support the dog’s well-being, while a poorly fitting harness may result in health problems and impaired communication between dog and owner.

The team members, movement analysts and physiotherapists, examined the distribution of pressure in working guide dogs by placing pressure sensors beneath their harnesses. Eight guide dogs were filmed with a trainer while climbing steps, avoiding obstacles, turning left and right and walking straight ahead. To visualize the movements, the animals, the trainers and the harnesses were equipped with reflective markers. The positions of the markers were recorded by a total of ten cameras.

The results showed that the bottom right of the animals’ chests is particularly stressed. As Barbara Bockstahler explains, “Guide dogs walk under constant tension. They are usually on their owners’ right and in front of them.” The scientists found that the pressure on the right side of a dog’s chest may equate to up to 10 per cent of the animal’s weight. In contrast, the dog’s back experiences far less pressure. “It is important for guide dogs to exercise regularly without a harness to compensate for the lopsided pressure they experience in their work”, says Bockstahler.

Very rigid harnesses enable quick and finely tuned communication between dogs and owners but cause stress to the animals. The more stiffly the harness is anchored to the handle, the more pressure the animal experiences. The most comfortable harness relies on a hook-and-loop connection, which provides the least pressure on the dog, although for long-haired dogs a plastic clip version is favourable.

The researchers want to study guide dogs for a longer period of time to find out whether any of the harnesses are associated with long-term problems in the animals.   They require partners and sponsors for this work.

The results of this study have been published in the Veterinary Journal.

Source:  Vetmeduni Vienna press release

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