01 May 2013

Essential Creativity

This post is for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This Resources and Tools ADBC is hosted by Frida Writes. At first, I was not going to enter this carnival. In my new home, I have much more severe issues with EMFS (electro-magnetic frequency sensitivity) The less time on the computer, the better in this situation. When the deadline was extended, I could not help myself. grin

I could write on so many things within the Resources and Tools topic, but I decided to leave some of the topics that will be well covered by other bloggers and write about the topic that truly is an essential part of what allows/ allowed me to have so much success partnered with my Border Collies.

From the start with Chimette, it was clear that if we were going to be successful, something was going to have to happen in the area of gear. At the time everything I could find on the market was difficult with my hand limitations, not comfortable for Met, or it rotated when he performed his guide duties. Lets face it, gear was created around the mindset and structures of the typical service dog breeds of Golden and Labrador Retrievers. The only differences in the gear are in the size. They didn't and many still don't take into consideration the structural differences- especially that of smaller chests, and differences in natural gaits of the various breeds which can in some circumstances set these dogs up for structural problems after working in the inappropriate gear.

Anytime I bought gear for Met, I found myself having to change it, sometimes significantly. It all began with changing clasps on leashes and collars so that I could do them independently. These simple adaptations led to those of more significant gear.

I've always been a creative person. As a child I sewed a lot. I made clothes for my dolls, made dolls, stuffed animals, and other things my mind conjured up. It was just natural for me to use my creativity to eliminate the obstacle of poor fitting gear that was essential in making this partnership work.

At first, I would buy gear sold on the market and adapt it so that it worked better for Met and I, but eventually I realized how ridiculous that was. I was paying sometimes twice as much as necessary by following this approach. What was realistic was to find resources for the materials I needed and build the gear myself.

This wasn't a time when there were a lot of gear providers as it was, especially for guide dog gear. The internet did not have the abundance of providers for gear let alone materials in those days. I was fortunate to have both manufacturers and friends who provided me with some valuable resources. Today, I still use some of those resources when trying to find the essential hardware I need to make reliable gear that fits and enables Thane and I to work effortlessly with it.

The first gear I made for Met  I did by hand, but with my hand limitations, I soon picked up a sewing machine to allow me to create more rugged gear.

One of my favorite parts of making my own gear is the experimentation phase: trying out my creations for fit and function on their part as well as how it works for them to provide me with the guide skills they have been trained to provide. Now-a-days most of my gear is functional, but in the earlier days I learned a lot by my failures about the structure and natural movement of not just my dogs, but the two of us as a team as well.

As my vision deteriorated to the level that I felt an American Style guide harness would be more appropriate for Thane and I, I felt unsure as to whether or not I could create such a harness while keeping the same loop back fastening girth strap as I was using at the time. There were some great friends and owner trainers who I spoke to during this strategizing phase, including Julie who used to own On the Go making guide dog gear. I got some good feedback on the loops themselves as well as ideas on how to test them before sewing them down more securely that really helped. It took a while for me to strategize a harness I thought would work. In the end it took about three or four designs before I finally had a design that really worked.

I used that harness design for a little over two years with great effectiveness before a number of hard traffic checks sent me back to the drawing board for a different front chest design. My move from a small country-like town to the fast paced city brought with it drivers who seem to have the skill level of someone getting a license out of a cracker jacks box. That was made even more difficult by the curb cuts in this city that make me feel like we have been thrown into the wayback machine back to the 80's! The result of all this can be more torque placed on the harness and thus chest of the dog when it is guiding a handler in a wheelchair down steep and/or awkward curb cuts or doing hard traffic checks because a driver did not stop when they should have. I am hopeful that his new harness which is an adaptation of the EZYDOG convert harness I bought online (before I was able to set up my sewing machine for effective work here) will work for just as long as the previous design.

Over the years I have made a myriad of leash designs for each dog (wide webbing multi-clasp adjustable, narrow webbing multi-clasp adjustable, wide velcro adjustable, narrow webbing with O ring design for use in normal working conditions as well as narrower paths of travel, etc; vests, small velcro backpacks to work with harnesses I made, harnesses of multiple designs as my vision deteriorated, rain coats that can be worn over the harness, guide handles of multiple designs from more flexible in the early years to rigid offset today; boots, a guide handle brace thanks to support from Mardi who I met on a training list for guide and service dogs- frankly I guess you can say I have made it all though I still occasionally buy an item here and there that requires no to minimal adaptation (mostly collars and leashes).

My favorite item that I finally figured a way to adapt so I can use when Thane is in harness is the Clicker Leash. I have a lot of limitations when it comes to activating clickers. Until I got this leash, I could only activate the tiny party clickers so this was quite a surprise for me to be able to activate it. I did not care for the leash fabric/ width so I replaced that part right away with a tape nylon webbing. Since then I have added an additional length to allow for a connection to my chair while I am able to hold the handle for its use. I generally use this lead when I need to work on something with Thane- mostly related to these *after thought* curb cuts we have to deal with in our city.

The bottom line here though is this- I love that I have the creativity and skill to adapt and create the gear that I need. It not only gives me a sense of accomplishment, but I am able to get gear designed the way I want, with the options we both need to make this work for us. I can't imagine how much money I have saved over the years if this simple EZY DOG convert harness I recently adapted further to use as a guide harness cost $50 bucks! I love that harness btw but to use as a guide harness there was some difficult aspects to overcome to adapt it.

Its never easy dealing with gear when you have MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivities) Even when I make my own gear, the detox process can be quite lengthy (sometimes years and sometimes never accomplished). I've worked hard to find resources where the detox is as minimal as possible. Below are some of my favorite resources for materials. Maybe others out there who have the creative *bug* can make use of these.

Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics
They recently changed their website for the negative, but their customer service is usually really good. Their prices are great and fabrics such as cordura and packcloth are often less toxic purchased from them. They sell hardware as well, but usually I opt for strapworks for all but velcro which I generally purchase by the roll. They do not do online ordering, but will accept orders by fax with follow up emails if you request them when you send the fax.

Seattle Fabrics
This company is on the pricey side for both the items they sell and the shipping, but on occasion I use them as they sell some hard to find hardware items that have been beneficial for me over the years.

Old Trail Fabric
I have got some really neat cordura colors from this company. That said, the detox time was longer than I had planned for. At the time, however, cordura was a brand new item for them so it was probably no different than if my regular source above got a new supply.

Beacon Fabric and Notions
I like this company for untreated cotton duck and cotton webbing. There are probably cheaper sources, but this company is quick and has reasonable shipping charges.

This company is a superb resource for hardware. Caution is warranted with their website for individuals prone to seizures. Keeping up with their website changes, to block flashing ads is a full time job sometimes, but it is worth it for the wonderful hardware and webbing options.

I have a number of other sources, some of which I have not tried yet, but the above are my favorite places for buying materials.

I have not received any payment for my reviews of the gear I wrote about in this entry. 


  1. Terrific post here Karyn. I realy enjoyed reading this. I remember you telling me and even sent me a picture of a rain coat you made for thane. Keep up the good work!

    Debbie & Leone

  2. I wish I could be more creative. I would love to be able to make gear for Rogue, instead of making her deal with the things she dislikes.

    thanks so much for sharing the websites you like getting materials from, I might order something some day.

  3. Thanks Brooke
    I truly love to design my dogs gear so that it is perfect for our needs. If you ever need any other resources for something specific, feel free to ask as I have quite a number of sites for specific materials. If only I were rich! LOL

  4. Karyn, I'm glad you had a chance to submit a post. I am encouraged to try to create my own solutions and make my own modifications as I need them to save money. Gear can be quite expensive!

    This sounds silly, but I am such a sewing novice that when my dog rodented through a strap, I worried that I'd have to replace a vest I'd saved for--but no, that width webbing is available at the fabric store, and we were able to overlay it and fix it.

    Thank you for the sources for material!

  5. I'm not sure if my comment published since I hadn't signed in first--but I am glad you had a chance to write. Not only am I interested in making some gear, like coats and raincoats that fit his frame better, but I want to be able to make repairs to my own equipment as I need, or modifications as needed. The supply resources are a great help!

  6. I hadn't known about the clicker leash! That was a good discovery to learn about for me.

    I had always assumed you'd had a sewing machine since forever! I didn't know you got it specifically for working on Met's gear. Great resources here -- some I already knew about (from you!) but others I didn't.

  7. You learn something new everyday. Though I've always loved to sew, it took me a while to figure out how to do a machine without the use of my feet. Some things are pretty easy to just use a hand for, but some- not so easy (like filling bobbins) I'm on my second machine now (by choice) which has a better presser foot height for heavy materials. It's getting more difficult to find machines that seem appropriate for a blind sewer's needs as many manufacturers are going to digital settings, but my Kenmore's have done me great service.
    I was so happy when Met and I rolled home from the mall with my first sewing machine. When I made his first gear with it, people would ask me what store I bought it from and that made me proud..

    I learned about the Clicker Leash when the Obama's got their dog.They also got a Clicker Leash so they gained some popularity that way. There was quite a delay with them but when they heard they were for a service dog they rushed my order. It came in handy with indoor training until I finally figured out what was needed in the adaptation. Post Lyme, it was also a really great asset for us.
    It is a bit cumbersome if you need to hold onto a handle on your service dog and control a wheelchair but my type of joystick knob combined with my determination to find a way to adapt it certainly paid off for Thane and I
    It came in really handy working on some of the very bizarre style curbcuts here in our new location- I don't know what I would have done without it as I really needed very precise timing to direct Thane accurately.
    I'm grateful for how well it has worked out for us though I choose the regular leash for ease of use when training new situations is not necessary