Bernard the Wonderdog: Where you end up when you follow a dog that can't walk.
by Eric Swisher
(Bellingham, WA, USA)
Bernard the Wonderdog in his Suit and Cart
We didn’t wake up one day thinking we would build harnesses for disabled dogs. We were just trying to help some friends solve a problem. It really all began with one dog.
In 2006 our friends Joanna and Steve were volunteering at the local Alternative Humane Society, where they met Bernard, then a healthy pup. Not long after they brought him home he began having problems with his balance. His condition quickly worsened, and he became unable to walk on his own. Before long, he couldn’t even stand without assistance. His muscles were weak and under-developed from lack of use, and Bernard was being given steroids in an effort to help put some meat on his bones. His increasing size and ever-diminishing coordination were presenting a growing problem for his owners. There was no hope of a cure, and several vets suggested that Bernard be put down.
Not yet willing to give up on their little dog, Joanna and Steve began to try the various harnesses and slings available while they looked for an alternative to euthanasia. None provided the lift or control they wanted, and Bernard would slither out of some, while others were all straps and no padding.
Convinced that her dog was going to die within a few weeks, Joanna called us to ask if we could make some sort of sling that would let them move Bernard around the house and yard during his final days. I suppose she asked us because she knew Victoria owned a sewing machine and wasn’t afraid to use it. It certainly wasn’t our years of experience working with dogs (zero) or our engineering background (none). Of course, we were glad to try to help.
When we first met Bernard, he was laying on a rug in Joanna and Steve’s front room. Like any puppy, he was excited to see new faces, and he began wiggling his little legs and barking. Suddenly, he lurched to his feet, only to immediately topple over again. He lay there, barking and wiggling on the rug, as we introduced ourselves to him and he ate a few snacks. He was a happy, friendly little dog; he just couldn’t walk across the room for every treat in the pet food aisle.
This would be a challenge. Our mission: to create a sling that would allow Joanna and/or Steve to move Bernard, and not allow him to slip out. And, if possible, for it to wrap around him while he lay on the floor, since he couldn’t stand up to help with putting it on. Also, since Bernard spent most of his time crawling around, it would have to be durable, yet comfortable. We focused on creating a harness that could meet all of these requirements, and we hurried, dreading the possibility that we might not finish in time.
We had some ideas: Velcro® and quick-release buckles to secure it firmly to the dog’s torso, shoulder straps and a “bib” to keep him from slithering forward, padding and wide straps to spread the support under the dog. Also, we didn’t want Joanna and Steve to have to feed Bernard’s legs or head through loops of strap; we wanted the straps to clip on around the dog.
We finished a model of the first harness and went over to try it on Bernard. We wrapped it around him, clipped on the handles, gave him a little lift, and…. Nosedive! Bernard tipped forward, his head hovering just above the floor. Our design clearly needed some refinement.
We made an alteration to the shoulder straps and returned a couple of days later to subject Bernard to a second fitting. Wrap. Clip. Lift…. Eureka! Bernard was up and level. He wiggled, but didn’t slip out. He lunged, but remained on his feet and under control. I gave him a test lift and held him suspended for a few seconds – he felt completely balanced. In no time at all he was actually doing a reasonable imitation of walking, with Steve and Joanna helping, one on each side. Victoria and I high-fived each other as we looked on. It felt good to help our friends help their pet.
That might have been that, except for a couple of things. One was that every time we saw Joanna and Steve they would thank us repeatedly and profusely, telling us what a difference the “Suit” (as they called it) made in their lives, and how much it helped Bernard every day. The other was Maggie, a German shepherd that belonged to another friend, Susan. During weekly walks with Susan and her dogs over the past couple of years, Victoria had been watching Maggie grow progressively older and weaker and less able to see. At this point she was completely blind and needed help getting into and out of Susan’s small truck. At over eighty pounds it was difficult for Susan help her, and because she couldn’t see, Maggie was hesitant, which made things even more difficult. Victoria told me she wanted to build a suit for Maggie.
This posed another challenge. While Bernard was essentially a cylinder with feet, having a belly about the same circumference as his chest, Maggie’s belly circumference was several inches smaller than her chest. A large version of Bernard’s suit would be loose on Maggie’s belly. How
would we make a suit that fit as well at the back as at the front?
While solving this “Body Taper” issue for Maggie, we realized that it should be possible to fit most dogs, most animals really, with adaptations of the same basic formula that we derived to create the tapered model for Maggie.
That is when we first started measuring dogs. I’m sure people thought we were nuts, asking if we could measure their dogs, then whipping out measuring tapes and notepads and descending on their pets. If they had more than one dog, even better. We would move from dog to dog, performing our peculiar data-gathering ritual and muttering to each other about girth, body tapers and bib lengths. We must have looked like a pair of lunatics, but eventually we used that data to devise a system of sizes and variations that would cover most body types, and have since fitted many kinds of dogs, from Shih Tzu to St. Bernard.
All this time, Joanna and Steve had been using the suit to move Bernard. Instead of deteriorating further, he was actually growing stronger, with the help of daily “walks” in his suit. Weeks passed, then months, with Bernard growing stronger and healthier. Believing that he would be with them at least a while longer, Steve built a cart that attached to the support points of Bernard’s suit and held him suspended in an upright position while he walked. In this “Bernard-Mobile” the suit acts as the transmission, literally harnessing the power of the dog and allowing him to move himself.
Meanwhile, Maggie’s suit was working just as we had hoped. Not only did it help Susan to get Maggie in and out of her truck, but Maggie seemed to sense the support and became less hesitant and more willing to make the leap. It also made guiding her easier as they walked the uneven trail around Lake Padden.
Having seen what a difference the suit was making for Bernard and Maggie, we began to wonder about other dogs in need. After consulting our vet to make sure we couldn’t damage animals with our harness, we began to search for parts suppliers, put together a website, generate promotional copy, and do all of the other things necessary to start getting the word out. All of this has been even more challenging than creating the original harness or adapting it to fit other dogs, but it has been very rewarding, knowing that we are helping dogs in other states and countries.
We’ve been surprised by the variety of reasons our clients have purchased our harnesses. We anticipated that owners of weak or disabled dogs would be our main customers, but underestimated the interest from owners of active dogs. One woman in Texas bought a yellow suit to put on her dog when they go sailing. Another in Leeds bought a suit to help her control a 100 lb St. Bernard puppy. One fellow emailed us to ask about lowering his dog over small cliffs while out “bouldering” with his friends.
Though most of our clients are sub-active, some are actually using the suit as part of a rehabilitative effort. Our very first client told us the suit (he called it a vest) was helping his dog “re-learn to walk.
Bernard will be two years old in September (2007)! He still can’t stand on his own, but he’s off steroids, fully grown, healthy and remarkably strong. Though he wears his suit almost all day, every day, he has no bald patches or chafing and hasn’t suffered any suit-related injuries. Steve has built a series of increasingly refined carts for him, and added a large ramp to the front steps of their home, so Bernard can be guided in and out more easily. The dog that was once expected to live only a few more weeks now has Joanna and Steve planning for the long-term.
A couple of months ago they got the idea to celebrate Bernard’s second birthday by taking him along on the Whatcom Humane Society’s annual Dog Days of Summer walk around Lake Padden, which will happen this year on September 2nd. They decided to get an early start on training, to slowly increase Bernard’s stamina enough for him to make it around the lake on the day of the event. Incredibly, Bernard made it all the way around on his first try- 2.6 unpaved miles!
We continue to be inspired by Bernard’s tenacity and vigor, and by Joanna and Steve’s unflinching dedication to their dear pet. We’re also amazed by all that has happened in our lives as a result of helping Bernard. It’s surprising where you can end up when you follow a dog that can’t walk.
Animal Suspension Technology July, 2007
Update, September, 2009 THIS JUST IN:
That was written two years ago. This month, Bernard will be Four years old and he is still going strong! He hikes, he swims, he does everything you would want a dog to do. He just does it all in his suit and cart, a rolling testament to the idea that no obstacle is too great to overcome when you have the support you need. Happy Birthday, Bernard! And hats off to Joanna and Steve, the kind of owners every dog hopes to find!