Friday, July 20, 2012

Assistance Harnesses Review

Whether you have a dog that is getting old, a "tripawd" from amputation, one that suffers from hip dysplasia, arthritis, spine issues, or balance issues, at some point you may be thinking of finding some way to help them get around and still enjoy life.

Not long ago, the only solution to most pet owners was the tried and true towel support method.  It was easy, cheap, and most everyone has a towel they can use to help support and provide mobility for their special needs dog.

Thanks to innovations on fabrics, straps, clasps, and a customer base that wanted a better solution to help their best friends move around and enjoy life, companies are now creating harnesses and support solutions that make it easier, more convenient, and more comfortable for dogs to enjoy their lives despite their disabilities.

But which harness is best and better yet, which harness is best for your dog?

Out of necessity, I will be reviewing two harnesses produced by Ruffwear Performance Dog Gear.  Although manufactured more toward allowing active dogs to participate in their owners' outdoor recreation and sport, these harnesses have proven to be beneficial in providing support and mobility to special needs dogs as well.

In my case, I needed a reliable, safe, and comfortable way to help my 11 year old Siberian Husky, Sam, navigate up and down stairs.  Sam is a medical mess.  Born with deformed hips, the right hip floats away from the socket in a natural Femoral Head Ostectomy (FHO).  At 9 months of age, Sam underwent a Total Hip Replacement (THR) of the left hip.  At 6 years of age, Sam ruptured the T13/L1 disc in his spine and underwent surgery to repair it.  At 8 years of age, Sam completely tore his left ACL.  I also need to mention that Sam is also lopsided, one side didn't grow as much as the other side.  Sam is a very expensive dog and well worth it.

Because of his past medical issues, Sam isn't able to jump up on the bed, is a little "loose" in the back end (imagine an 18 wheel truck turning the wheel very fast on ice) and his back end isn't as strong as it should be.  We live in a split level house, so going down the stairs for Sam means pretty much flinging himself down and bunny hopping along the way and hoping for the best.  Because of some missteps, Sam doesn't like going down the stairs... or up for that matter.

Sam in 2007 after his spine surgery
In the past, we used our walking belts to loop under him for support while he was recovering from his various and sundry surgeries.  This was a fantastic solution because the walking belt had a secure snap that made it easy to get it around him, was easier to hold than two ends of a towel, and are machine washable for those times when he would let the pee fly before we could get the belt out of the way.  You can find out more information on the walking belts we used here.

Although fantastic as a support when walking around the house or yard, it wouldn't provide the support or security of helping him go down the stairs.  One false step for either of us would be a disaster.

So, I turned to the Tripawds Website to see what they recommended.  This great group of people provide information, advice, and assistance to owners of animals who have undergone amputation and are ALWAYS a good, reputable, informative, and very friendly source of solutions.  I highly recommend them.

Tripawds has a few mobility devices listed, and I ordered the Ruffwear Web Master harness from them, and later the Ruffwear Double Back harness, which I purchased from Zappos, but is also available from Tripawds.

Ruff Wear Web Master Harness

Used by avalanche rescue teams, the harness is very lightweight and deceptively small looking.  One of the key features is that it is so secure, dogs can't back out of the harness and the manufacturer site even touts its secure design made especially for "Houdini dogs", which is the typical description of Siberian Huskies.

Even though I had measured Sam according to the sizing instructions on Tripawds, the harness didn't seem to fit right, there wasn't enough strap to go around his chest area.  I was slightly frustrated and e-mailed Tripawds to let them know that the harness didn't fit.  Apparently this is a common issues, because Rene from Tripawds quickly e-mailed me back with additional clarification on the straps.

Yeah, duh... I had mistakenly thought that the strap that was tucked into the padding was suppose to stay that way.

You simply pull the strap with folded flap (designed to keep it from coming out of the clip) through the padding and there is PLENTY of strap to go around him now.

Plenty of strap to adjust
There are 5 points on this harness to adjust to make comfortable.  Make sure you adjust the nicely padded breastplate to fit on the breastplate.  If not properly adjusted, your dog won't be able to lower its head without getting strangled.

Putting it on is pretty easy, just lift the right front leg, head through the neck part and strap them in (see the demonstration video provided by Tripawds).

Securing the body supports is as easy as a click with the secure and padded clips.

The extended harness pad helps keep that wayward fur from getting snagged in the snap
Here is Sam proudly wearing his Ruffwear Web Master harness.

yes, I know I need to wash and repaint my walls :)
My biggest concern about the harness was that for dogs with limited rear leg mobility, would the handle be far enough back to give them the back end support they needed.  I would definitely say that for paralyzed dogs, or dogs with extreme rear limb mobility, this would not be a harness for you.  The Get a Grip harness may be more what your dog needs.

The Web Master will allow you to help your dog up from a laying or sitting position with ease.  It has also proven very handy helping Sam go up and down the stairs at a more controlled speed safely.  The handle is very comfortable and sturdy and allows you to securely guide your dog down the stairs slowly and safely.

One thing about Sam that may or may not apply to your dog is that he refuses to eat, drink or poop while it's on.  I'm not sure if he doesn't like the pressure of the chest plate when he leans down to eat or take a drink, or if lowering his head causes uncomfortable pressure on his back.  He also has a rather unique method for pooping that requires him to actually balance on one front leg, and I think the underbelly straps either throw his balance off, or once again causes pressure on his spine.

Regardless, it is very fast easy to put on and take off, so generally I'll put it on him when he needs to go downstairs to go out, and take it off before he goes out the back door, then put it back on him when it's time to go back upstairs, then take it off again.

The first time he went down the stairs wearing it, he was pretty scared, and I felt bad for literally dragging him over the top of the stairs.  He also wasn't quite sure how to walk down the stairs with me helping.  Be prepared to be patient and train your pup with plenty of positive reinforcement and praise until they get use to it.  After only a few times going up and down the stairs with my help, he now actually waits at the top of the stairs for me to put the harness on, and the same thing going back up.

The harness has a d-ring at the top to attach a leash or dog seat belt strap to it, making it perfect for using on rides, walks or hikes, and as I stated before, the harnesses construction won't allow them to back out of the harness.  I have a specialty seatbelt system that I will need to see if this is functional with, but will work out a solution for that if not.

I give this harness two very big thumbs up for its design, construction, and ease of use.  Very simplistic, and yet very functional and helpful.

Ruffwear DoubleBack Harness

Because of my concerns about the Web Master not being far back enough to help dogs with limited rear leg mobility, I also purchased the Ruffwear DoubleBack Harness, which seemed to have some additional rear functionality that the Web Master harness did not.

DoubleBack Harness with back leg straps stored

This harness is made specifically for climbing and mountaineering with your dog.  Unlike the Web Master, the DoubleBack harness has a larger belly support strap, metal buckles instead of plastic snaps, and a back leg support system that folds and stores in a pouch at the back of the harness.

DoubleBack Harness with back leg straps out
Like the Web Master, it is pretty light and has a 5-point adjustment.  Unlike the Web Master all of the buckles are made of metal and it has a bit more padding.

Metal buckles instead of plastic snaps
It was a little more difficult getting Sam's front right leg through the leg strap because of the larger one piece underbelly strap.  It flopped and twisted around a bit and was a bit of a hassle dealing with it while trying to lift the neck strap over his head, but once on, the harness was very well fitting.

With enough treat bribery, Sam stood still and wagged his tail while I threaded the ends through the buckles and tightened them.  Not as easy or as quick as the snaps, but since this harness' function is to rappel down mountains with your dog connected to you, I can see where having secure buckles would be a bonus.

Sam wearing the DoubleBack with rear leg supports draped over his back
Sam seemed just at ease wearing this harness as he did the Web Master, so it is apparently comfortable for him.  You will notice that the general design is the exact same as the Web Master except for the more secure buckles and metal.  The handle is also a bit more padded on the DoubleBack.

Once again, the harness is designed for rappelling, so the back-end support is made for dogs without back end issues, and also where my love affair with the DoubleBack ended in its current design.

The back leg harness is designed to loop under the dog's legs.  I didn't EVEN try that on Sam, let alone try to lift up.  I can only imagine what possible damage I could do lifting him up with pressure on his hip sockets, especially with a stainless steel hip on one side and floating hip on the other.

I would not recommend using the back leg straps for dogs with dysplasia, or had hip replacement for fear that it would pop the ball out of the socket.   I would like to have seen a strap that went under the dog's belly toward the rear, and had even contemplated whether I could simply loop one of the straps underneath.  The problem with that is that the padding on that strap wasn't sufficient, the strap too thin, and that when lifted, the balance would be off to one side or the other.

Another issue is that when the leg straps are folded back into their zippered compartment on the rear, it creates a pretty large bulge that presses down on Sam's back.

He was perfectly comfortable and fine wearing it with the rear leg straps out, but when I folded the straps into the compartment, he showed visible discomfort because of the pressure on his back.

In my real world scenario of putting the harness on him to help him down the stairs, taking it off so he could do his business, then putting it back on again to help him upstairs, the buckles would mean taking much longer to get him in the harness and out of the harness, then back in and out of the harness.  Taking that much time to get Sam out to pee is too long, since he has some flow control issues when he REALLY needs to go out.  I'm guessing that before I got him all strapped in, he would have peed all over and not have to go out anymore.

So, overall, it is a fabulously designed harness for dogs that go rappelling and mountaineering with their owners, but not so fabulously designed for dogs with rear leg issues. 


I would highly recommend the Ruffwear Web Master harness for dogs with mobility issues, whether front or back end.  While not a full back-end support system, if your dog has hip or back leg issues and just needs support getting up, walking, or going up/down the stairs, this harness provides them with enough support to get around with your help.  Could also be used with a back support strap if needed, but handling two straps may be a bit problematic going down the stairs.

I also recommend purchasing your harness from the Tripawds gang to help support their great cause, and they won't laugh at you when you can't figure out how the straps work.