Category Archives: Equipment

Physical Fitness and Safety with Mobility Service Dogs ~ The Dogsider

There is a lot of discussion about the size of a mobility dog necessary for clients who need them for certain tasks. I found this article to be very informative, and would welcome any other suggestions on good articles regarding this:

The job description of a mobility dog can include a myriad of things. Wheelchair pulling, button pushing, flipping light switches, counter balance, bracing, item retrieval, door opening and closing and momentum pulling, just to name a few. Whatever mobility tasks a service dog is trained to do are things they should be more than physically competent to perform.

For example: an 8 lb Papillon can do light item retrieval (keys, medicine) and may be able to operate a K9 phone, certain adapted light switches, open lower, lightweight doors, but they are in no way capable of pulling a wheelchair.

Another example: a 58 lb Chesapeake Bay Retriever (I’m using Saxon in this example!) can easily tug doors, turn on/off lights, press handicapped buttons, counterbalance, item retrieval and momentum pull, but is NOT capable of bracing. I will never ask her to learn to square up or stiffen her body for bracing. She will never be large enough to support the weight I carry.

Yet another example: a 90 lb Doberman can easily do most if not all mobility tasks that could be required, including bracing. A 90 lb dog will be large enough for most adults who are of average or overweight (NOT obese) size to do brace work with.

For this post I’m not mentioning program trained mobility dogs because they generally come with their own set of trained tasks, health check up, mobility harness/gear with usage instructions and have been chosen specifically for the client. The following questions are geared at those people who have mobility issues, either diagnosed or self assessed (symptoms can still impede your overall mobility) and decide to train a mobility dog for themselves.

What mobility tasks can you not live without?

First you need to have an honest discussion with yourself and anyone who knows you and your issues well (family member, friend, doctor) and can provide insight into tasks you may need. Come up with symptoms or scenarios that make a situation challenging or limit your mobility. Then assign tasks to those things you struggle with and rank them from most important to least. Make sure to distinguish between tasks you do not think you could function well or at all without, and those that would make your life easier. (get medication when you cannot get up to get it yourself vs. turn off your light at night when you’re capable, but comfy in bed).
Is the dog large enough to be able to perform all the tasks you need ESPECIALLY if you want them to bare weight?
If you have a specific breed of dog in mind you should be comparing the average height and weight of that breed to what you are hoping to have the dog someday perform as tasks. There are a lot of weight ratios thrown around. I’ve heard the dog is supposed to be 50% of your weight and 40% of your height (measured from their shoulder) to be deemed large enough for heavy mobility such as bracing. It’s 30% weight and 30% height for counterbalance and momentum pull I think. I’m not sure where these numbers came from or if they are just arbitrary percentages. I think for bracing 50/40% is accurate. Counterbalance and momentum pull I personally disagree with as I’ve seen videos of Chihuahuas pulling 500+ lbs in Weight Pull. In the right harness (not on a flat collar, prong collar, head collar or front clip harness) there should be absolutely no issues with straight momentum pull. But back to the bracing percentages. If you weigh 150 lbs and are 5’6, your dog needs to weigh 75 lbs minimum and be at least 26.5″ at the shoulder. If you weigh 100 lbs I still think dogs should be minimum 60 lbs, but that’s my personal feelings. Most dogs under 60 lbs don’t have the bone build to support significant excess weight, even if only momentarily.
And in every single case where the dog will have any weight applied it is essential to your dog’s health that you get the dog’s hips and elbows x-rayed and then looked at by an orthopedic vet to determine joint health. Failure to do so could cause unnecessary pain and additional issues in a dysplastic dog. Although it is possible to get with a dog with great hips, either all but guaranteed by hip scores in the dog’s lineage, or purely by luck. In any case though, a dog you are asking to physically support your weight for your health should not have their health left up to luck and chance. A dysplastic dog does not need to be supporting their handler’s weight if they are struggling or could at any point begin to struggle to support their own. The dog should be 2 years prior to final x-rays that will determine the mature hips and joint structures of the dog. 2 years is generally when the joint capsules have closed, though in some giant breed dogs it may take up to 3 years for all joints to close and bones to have fused. It can seriously harm a puppy or young dog, even a large or giant breed, to brace on their unfused joints.
In the 2 week old pup there are clear spaces in the joint capsule of nothing. You can see how far the bones have to grow to be able to touch each other and create strong joints. The 7 month old has most of the bone structure but the bones are still softer as they have not are not fully hardened to how they will be as adults. The last photo is an x-ray of a dog with a healthy set of adult hips with hardened bones and complete joint sockets where the bones fit well together.

There are many mobility harness makers, several of them making custom harnesses to the dog’s specifications. Unless you can go to the harness maker’s store front to have your dog measured personally, the handler is often left to get their dog’s own measurements. A proper rigid bracing harness consists of a a piece of metal that runs horizontally across the shoulders NOT vertically up the spine. The strongest point on dog to bare weight is right across the shoulders. When bracing on the shoulders it is imperative the dog be taught to square up and brace to minimize likelihood of injury for both dog and handler.

Prior to putting on any rigid handled harness, the dog must have already mastered squaring up and tensing up muscles prior. Training a mobility dog, contrary to some things I’ve seen floating around, is not as simple as throwing a harness over their head, buckling it up and just walking with it. The dog does not automatically know what to simply because they are now wearing a mobility harness. What I mean by this is the dog stands with both of their front feet together so the shoulders line up. The back feet are in line with the shoulders and are also square (not one significantly forward or backward). From this position the dog has the best ability to brace themselves effectively. I am using the word “Brace”, but whatever you call it (“Stiff” “Hold” “Steady”) the behavior is the same. The dog who has now mastered squaring their body will now need to learn how to stiffen their muscles in response to pressure being applied. This is NOT a behavior that can be introduced, learned and proofed in a single training session. This behavior also should NEVER be taught with a mobility harness. The harness should be added later once the brace behavior is solid.

Handle height is important. The proper way to measure for handle height is for you to up as straight as you can with your arms hanging loose at your side. Whichever side your dog heels on, make a loose fist with that hand. That is the height your mobility handle needs to be. Your shoulder should not raise to extend your arm nor should you be able to bend your elbow while holding the handle. When measuring for a handle you will stand as straight as you can, let your arm hang and hold it as if you are gripping a bar. It may actually help to hold a pen or marker while you are measuring from the distance from your hand to the floor. The other number needed to get a handle height is the dog’s height. My dog is 23″ at the shoulder. The height from my relaxed arm with a  closed fist to the floor is 30″. Therefore I would need a handle height of 7″.

It is not advised to do mobility with a dog for which you would require greater than a 6″ handle. Although there are harness makers that will add handles of heights as high as 14″, that is too high, and a dog can far more easily get harmed with the same action and force with a 10″ rigid handle vs a 4″ one. When a handle is too high too much pressure (such as a full force brace) or an incorrect brace (where the dog is not squared and the handler may not be completely next to or parallel to the dog and handle) it creates something called torque. Torque for those who aren’t mechanics or into physics, is defined as: a twisting force that tends to cause rotation.

Naturally any twisting force repeatedly applied to the spine and shoulders of a dog of any size is as dangerous as it sounds. Since to my knowledge none of the rigid handle harnesses on the market come with a detailed instruction manual including safe, proper usage, the handler/owner of their service dog’s new harness must now choose between trying to figure out what to do on their own or rely on the sometimes misguided advice of trainers or the internet. Bracing as carried out ideally will have the handler cue to the dog to stop or the dog auto stops. The handler asks the dog to square up if the dog has not already done so. The handler puts pressure on the handle to lever themselves up, usually from lower to higher ground (curb or stair) or from seated to rising such as standing from a chair. The dog remains still with muscles stiffened while the handler has hands on the handle. This is momentary pressure. The dog’s back is not meant to sustain the prolonged pressure of an adult’s body weight.

A dog should not be asked to brace while they are standing. The handle may be used for steadying purposes, such as reaching out to hold it or reorient in space, but at that point it is unsafe to apply any weight or downward force as the dog is not squared or prepared to brace. A rigid handle should not be used as a crutch or cane. Even a dog large enough to handle temporary bracing should not be subjected to step by step partial or full adult weight with downward force. If every step needs physical support above steadying simply by way of the handle simply being held, another mobility aid (cane, crutch, walker) may need to be added so the dog’s safety can be ensured.

On the note of discussing bracing in motion, a dog cannot square their body in motion, so bracing with a handle of any height cannot and should not be done in motion. The handle is NEVER meant to be pushed forward or backward. It is NOT a guide handle. There are a multitude of other harnesses that have guiding handles or pull straps if that is what is needed. There are also harness makers who combine a mobility harness with a rigid handle with a guide handle or pull strap attached so the harness can serve both functions.

One thing I see frequently in some of the service dog gear groups targeted toward mobility harnesses is that people will buy a rigid handle thinking they need it or that their disability manifests itself far more physically than it actually does. I see a lot of people trying desperately to downgrade their rigid handle for a soft handled balance harness. One of the only real differences between a rigid handle and a non rigid one is that a non rigid handle cannot be used for bracing at all. It can however be pulled up on to help yourself up or to hold the handle while the dog leans the opposite way, providing momentum to help you right yourself. A non rigid can double as a leading harness and can be used for momentum pulling and counter balance.

With one final comment, if you require an 85 lb dog, a dog who would at peak fitness be 70 lbs should not be used because it weighs at or in excess of the necessary 85 lbs. A dog who carries a good deal of excess weight should not be used as a mobility dog. There is simply no selfless way to ask a dog, even a trained dog, to support your weight and many multiple excess pounds of their own. I’m not talking a 3-5 lbs too many. There are so many dogs I’ve seen who weigh probably 20-30 lbs overweight, and I’ve seen some who may even be 40+ lbs overweight working as bracing mobility dogs. It’s just not fair. After a diet if they are healthy and fit (and evaluated by a vet to be cleared after a large weight loss) sure, but until then, the dog doesn’t need to carry more than his own share of weight and yours too.

Just for kicks, here is my little Mochi dog wearing a mobility harness. She is a retired service dog, but she never was a mobility dog.
“Hey Mochi! What are your thoughts on small dogs, unhealthy dogs, other unsuited dogs being used as bracing mobility dogs? I’ll make this tougher, contemplate this quandary! What if it’s not an issue with the dog, but how the handler uses the harness? Mochi, think about this, what if it’s both?”
That above is Mochi’s response. She says USE COMMON SENSE! I concur. Wisely spoken, Little One, wisely spoken.



Source: Physical Fitness and Safety with Mobility Service Dogs ~ The Dogsider

Robin’s Training Experience

After an intensive week of many, many hours a day training here in San Antonio after she and Smokey flew in from Philadelphia, combined with her own self-training (she had a previous Service Dog who just passed away), the team passed the Public Access Test!!!

Smokey is a rescued, 3 year-old black Labrador/Shepherd mix.  Robin suffers from complex PTSD and mobility and balance issues.  Robin spent two years in the Israeli Army, and then went on to become a Physician’s Assistant.  Robin’s trainers were Beverli and Laurie .

Laurie was absolutely delighted to see the transformation in both Smokey and Robin’s disposition from the time they arrived until the day they left.  They came as a unit that knew most every “command”, but by the end of the week of training, their bond had increased dramatically and the team dynamic was outstanding!!!!

Please watch this 15 minute video of Robin talking about her experience:

Flying With a Service Dog: 5 Required Skills – Anything PawsableAnything Pawsable

Great information about flying with your Service Dog. Of course, for Service Dog Express clients please remember  to fill out the Airline Assistance form under “Members” on our website when you have booked your flight so we can call the airline on your behalf and make sure everything will be smooth ahead of time.

Flying with a Service Dog requires your dog to have great manners and some basic skills. Here are some behaviors that will make your experience smoother.

Source: Flying With a Service Dog: 5 Required Skills – Anything PawsableAnything Pawsable

Client speaks up about fake Service Dogs

I LOVE IT when our clients speak up about how fake Service Dogs are not only a danger to others, but have the serious potential of ruining access rights for valid SDs or SDITs. Here is a submission from our amazing client, Ryan, who just passed his Public Access Test with his dog, “Brinn”.

“Hello everyone. I live in Converse, and my Service Dog Brinn passed her Public Access Test this past weekend. I wanted to let everyone know that there is a lady in Converse that is taking her untrained dog into stores up and down FM 78. I ran into her just now in Walmart. She admitted to me that her dog was “just her pet”, not a Service Dog or SDIT. When she said that all you have to do is say “It’s a Service Dog and they let you in, I immediately snapped and threatened to throw her out myself and asked an employee to call a manager. I went directly to the front of the store and made a complaint to a cop and the store manager. The girl is 5’3” tall, in her mid twenties, about 100 to 120 pounds, with shoulder length brown and blond hair. She has a dermal piercing on her upper lip on her right side. She is usually dressed very “scantly” . Her dog looked to be a black lab, about a year old and around 45 pounds. The dog had an orange collar and standard 6′ orange leash.

Please help me and all of us who have legitimate SDs or SDITs any way you can by informing the stores that you frequent on easy ways to identify a service animal, and the questions they should and are legally allowed to ask. The last thing any of us need is this woman’s dog biting a child or attacking a legitimate Service Dog, and causing the rest of us problems. Thank you.


Ryan and his SD Brinn

Catt and Baron’s trip to Italy

Wonderful news and lovely pictures from our former trainer and client, Catherine, in Virginia!! We are so proud of her – she has fought so hard throughout her medical issues and now is in a position to give back!! We love you, Catherine!!

Hi Laurie!

Ok – so update from me and Baron time! We went to Italy for 18 days (July 1 – July 18) and it was AMAZING!!! If anyone from Service Dog Express needs any help with advice/logistics on traveling to Italy and seeing the major sites, please let me know. We went to Venice, Florence, Bologna, Siena, Tuscany, and Rome. It was very Service Dog-friendly for the most part, and I had almost no issues, minus the fact that it was ridiculously hot the whole time. Luckily Baron and I managed to stay cool and had a fantastic time. He was a major fan of the gelato LOL! He handled the whole trip like a champ.

In other news, I got into graduate school!!!!! It was a totally last minute and very random application I filled out in June just for the experience of applying, I didn’t even remotely think I would get in. But while I was in Italy I got an email saying I got in! I had applied to American University (in DC) for their post-baccalaureate premedical program because I’m hoping to go to medical school. Could not believe I got into it! So now I’m moving to DC in two weeks…totally last minute! So Baron and I are very excited about that.

My health has been slowly but steadily improving over the last couple months and I haven’t had a POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) episode in 4 weeks (hope this doesn’t jinx it). My doctors are hopeful that this treatment they have me on will continue to help and that my condition will stabilize.

So lots of very exciting things going on over here on the east coast! I hope you are both doing well and can’t wait to hear back from you! I of course attached some photos of Baron (and me) in Italy!

This picture so clearly shows the bond between Baron and I. Whenever there is room, he always lays his head on my lap or on my feet; he just likes to be close to me.
Baron at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He didn’t think it was very interesting; I think he was expecting some pizza LOL
Walking around Rome — in Rome, Italy.
The Colosseum!
Baron’s favorite part of Italy….GELATO!! I let him taste quite a few of the flavors and crunch on the cone sometimes. LOL- he was a big fan of the fruit ones. I think in this picture its a nut flavored one.

Love you guys!
Catt & Baron

Update from Denise, a Vietnam Era Wounded Warrior

It’s truly wonderful to hear news from our clients about how their Service Dogs continue to help them in ways they didn’t even expect – this is a result of consistent training even after they have passed the Public Access Test and BONDING!!!!

From our client, Denise, a Wounded Warrior from the Vietnam Era who passed her Public Access Test with the help of trainer, Brenda, and her Service Dog, Sandy! Denise is wheelchair-bound, and that does not inhibit her!!! This also highlights the importance of letting Laurie contact the airlines for you when you are traveling.

“Good Afternoon Laurie! Sandy and I are doing well also. As you can tell Sandy and I are on the road again. We are on our way to Houston for our family reunion, so I need your help again with arrangements for our trip. Whenever you contact the airport for me things run so much smoother, and I really appreciate that help from you. So I am sending you our itinerary for our trip and I would appreciate your help again.

I wanted to tell you something about the training I received for Sandy. I know Sandy was trained to help me with my PTSD, but I had no idea how well she understood her role until I got back from California. About two weeks after I returned, for some reason I had a meltdown. I was hysterically crying and unable to stop. All of a sudden, I started calling for Sandy; the next thing I knew I heard her jump out of her chair, come running through the apartment, jumped and flew through the air, jumped on top of me and pressed herself on me and held me down to calm me down, and she didn’t leave until I calmed down enough to fall asleep. It happened a second time and she did the same thing again. So I want to thank you again for your training course! Thank you so much for your help and understanding.”

Doesn’t something like that just fill your heart with joy?

Catt and Baron

From our dear trainer, Catherine, in Virginia – and update on her own Service Dog, beautiful Baron!!!


Service Dog Express's photo.

My Service Dog, Baron, is nearly 11 months old now, and after much debate with myself about when was the appropriate time to neuter him, I decided to

do it as soon as possible. He was neutered last week. I was an absolute disaster the day he was there; my childhood dog passed away during a routine surgery years ago, so I just was so worried about Baron.

I have discovered I am a very overprotective momma when it comes to Baron. Ever since my wonderful dog, Duke, recently died of a very aggressive brain tumor at such a young age (2), I worry (sometimes a little too much LOL) over Baron. At not even a year old, the vet receptionists all know my phone number when it pops up on their incoming calls! But he’s perfectly healthy!

Baron and I have continued our training since he passed his Public Access Test some time ago, and the number of commands he knows is astonishing to me. We’ve been invited to speak again to some of the Companion Animal classes here at Virginia Tech and I’m very excited about that!

Baron has helped me so much through my struggles with my health. As you may remember, I have chronic Lyme disease as well as a couple co-infections. I’ve had my PICC line in for about 3 months now – I believe it’s getting removed in a week or so – and have been on a lot of medications. I’m FINALLY starting to feel better!!! So thank goodness for that. One thing that has come up through all this is that I was originally diagnosed with POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or Dysautonomia) after doctors examined me, because I had a lot of instances where I would be totally fine and then I would fall over unconscious. Baron alerts to it! So, since I’ve had him, I’ve been able to either leave class or sit down so that when I drop, it’s not in a public or dangerous situation. In the last month or so there has been some debate on if I actually have POTS or if these are mini drop seizures. Still debating that, but either way Baron keeps me very safe from them!

So now on to list the massive number of commands he knows:

– Sit/Stay
– Down/Stay
– Here (our version of Come)
– Heeling – both on and off leash
– Load Up
– Let’s Go – getting out of the car
– Drop – drop it
– Cover – front and back
– Get It – pick up and bring whatever I point at (literally anything, including a piece of bacon I made him retrieve without eating…I’m a meanie I know)
– Under – going under table, chair, etc.
– Focus – eye contact
– Interrupting anxious behaviors
– Waking me up from night terrors
– Alerting to my “drop episodes”
– Pull – helping me up stairs or hills
– Lay – deep pressure therapy
– Place – go to your bed
– Tug – open pull doors/cabinets or pulling doors closed
– Close It – closing doors/cabinets
– Light – turning lights on (we haven’t learned turning them off yet)
– Push – pushing button for elevator or handicap door
– Get _____ – he knows the difference between Phone, Book, Meds, Keys, Leash
– Hold – he likes to carry things for me LOL like grocery lists. He’ll just carry it around wherever we go
– Back Up – backwards heel
– Out – get out of whatever room he’s currently in
– Put it – point at table or wherever and he’ll put his object on it
– Take it to ____ – heknows me and my mom so far
– Shake
– Rollover – by far his favorite command ever; if I’m trying to teach him something new and he doesn’t know what I’m asking he just rolls over!
– Around – run around me in a circle
– Bang – play dead

As you can see, there are a LOT of commands LOL! He loves to learn new things though and he is such an absolute joy to train. There are of course some fun commands in there, too, because he has to have something to show off to the kids we speak to.  Anyways, that is my update! I’ll attach some pictures of Baron too! In one of them he is wearing his “doggy pajamas”. Yup you read that right!! Baron blew out his entire undercoat in November and didn’t grow one back…he’s odd – what can I say. He’s a shorter-haired Golden Retriever and he also has very thin hair. So he gets cold – he has 3 pairs of doggy pajamas (I only have pictures of the one) that he has to wear some days when it’s below a certain temperature. Otherwise, he refuses to go outside and if I force him out, his teeth chatter and he shivers. I think he’s actually a giant chihuahua, but that’s just me LOL.

Catt & Baron


Elisa and her SDIT, “CB”.

From our dear trainer, Kendra, in Houston, with Elisa and her SDIT, “CB”. Elisa suffers from bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. Kendra writes:

I met Elisa at her house for the initial evaluation. At first, CB was shy; she was hiding behind Elisa when I came in the door. I had a treat in my hand and she would not take it. So Elisa and I sat down and talked about what she wanted a Service Dog to perform for her and more about the process.

After being there awhile, CB warmed up to me and I was able to do the evaluation. CB has already finished basic obedience at the Pet Store, so she knows “sit”, “lay (down)”, “off”, “leave it”, and loose-leash walking. I was able to handle CB with little problems. She is treat motivated, and has a strong bond with Elisa. We went outside to see how CB did outside of the home, and CB was much more outgoing when she was away from the other dog that’s in the home. I asked Elisa to work on getting CB to focus on her when out for walks by stopping at times and having CB do a “watch me”. The homework for Elisa and CB is to practice “watch me”, “sitting at the door” to go out, and socialization. We also talked about shedding, as CB sheds very badly. In one of these pictures, Elisa was having an anxiety attack and CB was comforting her!”

Vietnam Era Veteran Denise and Sandy

From our trainer, Brenda, who is working with Wounded Warrior, Denise. Denise is a Vietnam Era Veteran with PTSD due to Military Sexual Trauma (MST) while on active duty. Her PTSD was so strong that she has been a Mental Health patient for almost 25 years. This is devastating, as we all knew that those who fought in Vietnam rarely received the treatment they so desperately needed. Denise also got hurt in basic training, which progressed over the years and led to her being in a wheelchair. She can walk and stand for short periods, but not much more. Her SDIT, Sandy, is already very well-trained in obedience – a remarkable and admirable feat for someone who has been through all that Denise has had to endure.

Brenda, also in a wheelchair, had two sessions with Denise and Sandy. She writes:

“At our first session, I went through the initial assessment of Denise’s needs and Sandy’s behavior. We went over all indoor Public Access Test, such as “sit”, “stay”, “down”, “watch me”, etc. I also had Denise show me what she had worked on with Sandy most recently. She “comes” and “sit/stays” extremely well. Sandy is very motivated by treats as well as praise, and caught on quickly to “down.” She will be easy to work with!

At our second session, we went outside to finish going through the outdoor Public Access Commands. Sandy heels well next to the wheelchair, but just needs a bit of refinement. Sandy has a perfectly controlled “load” and “unload” into a vehicle, and maintains very good focus on Denise, ignoring most distractions. However, Denise said that Sandy is very protective of her when other dogs approach, but Denise can get her calm again quite easily. I worked on outside “downs” with her. Denise is going to work on “sit-stay-come” with increasing distances. She is going to start using a cane at times, and I told her I will train Sandy to adjust to this so that Denise doesn’t hurt her back.”