How I Help My Girl as a Light Mobility Dog

A Mobility Service Dog helps a handler who is disabled in one or more ways that affects their mobility or locomotion.  Mobility dogs are what come to mind for most people when they think of non-Guide Dog assistance dogs.  The tasks that a Mobility Service Dog can do varies depending on the dog itself, their handler’s needs, and the organization that trained the dog (when applicable).  Most people think of bigger dogs when they think of Mobility Dogs, but they can actually range in size: a small dog is just as capable of picking up dropped items and retrieving identified items if that’s what the handler needs.

Bigger dogs, though, are definitely required for weight-bearing mobility work, which is usually divided into the categories of “light” and heavy” depending on how much weight the dog needs to bear.  Different people will argue for different handler-to-dog ratios, but most people will say that a dog doing light mobility needs to be at least 1/3 of their handler’s height and 30% of their handler’s weight.  Heavy mobility typically requires a dog that is at least 33.3-40% of their handler’s height and 40-50% of their handler’s weight.** Light mobility work involves guide work, and heavy mobility work involves bracing and wheelchair pulling.***  Other weight-bearing tasks, such as counterbalance and forward momentum pulling, can vary in their categorization of “light” and “heavy” depending on the frequency of their use.  The bigger your dog is compared to you, generally the safer it’ll be to do weight-bearing mobility with that dog, but please note that these numbers are by no means the absolute standard for any given dog.  Structure also plays a critically important role in how pressure is distributed across the dog’s skeleton and can determine whether a dog can do weight-bearing mobility work safely.  Choice of mobility harness also critically affects the safety of mobility work for a dog (e.g. a fixed, rigid bracing handle typically shouldn’t be more than about 6″ in height because the downward force can create torque on the dog’s spine; source: my girl’s biomechanics notes, autumn 2017).

The ability to do mobility work depends on the individual dog itself: if you want to do weight-bearing mobility work with your dog, please consult your veterinarian to see if your individual dog is a good candidate for mobility work and that the mobility harness that you choose is appropriate for your individual dog, as well as for the tasks that you want your dog to perform.  Your pup shouldn’t be doing weight-bearing mobility work before their growth plates are closed, usually by 18-24 months, since this can have long-term affects on your dog’s musculoskeletal health, and growth plate progress can only be assessed via x-ray, not by a physical exam.  X-ray is also the only way to assess whether your dog can comfortably do mobility work (e.g. that your dog does not have hip dysplasia).  And remember that your dog needs to be conditioned to the work: weight-bearing mobility work on an unconditioned dog can cause injury even with the correct harness on a well-structured dog. (And, of course, if you’re relying heavily on your dog for heavy weight-bearing mobility work, it may be time to acquire a non-dog mobility aid, such as a walker or wheelchair.)

The type of weight-bearing mobility work that I do would be considered “light,” because I am approximately 1/3 of my girl’s height and about 38% of my girl’s weight.  My hips and elbows have been x-rayed multiple times, and I have been cleared by multiple vets at two different vet clinics (one on the West Coast, on on the East Coast) multiple times for every task that I do for my girl, the frequency with which I do my tasks, and every piece of gear in which I perform those tasks.  That’s a long checklist, but it’s important for keeping me safe!  And I need to be kept safe since my job is keeping my girl safe.

However, I do more than just weight-bearing mobility, of course!  I have a wide range of tasks to help my girl.  Her mobility issues stem primarily from her migraine disorder and her fibromyalgia, which is a syndrome characterized by pain and fatigue and is most likely caused by overactive pain receptors that interpret normal stimuli as super painful.  For my girl, fibromyalgia is associated with autonomic nervous system problems as well, like temperature regulation issues, bladder leakage, and GI issues.  As a Mobility Service Dog, I help my girl with her fatigue, pain, and nausea, as well as other symptoms that may impair her ability to move.

Because I love fetch, I easily learned how to pick up items other than toys, and I actually do it with pleasure — it’s like a game to me!  It’s just fetch with weirdly-shaped toys, right?  My enthusiasm really benefits my girl: I save her the job of bending over to pick up something, which is very helpful for her for a number of reasons.  When she has a migraine, for example, or even just the daily headaches caused by her migraine disorder, bending over can dramatically exacerbate the pounding in her head.  Her strength and dexterity are affected by the migraines, so it can be helpful to have me pick up items that she continually drops, like her phone.  Bending over can also worsen her dizziness and nausea, both of which are caused by her autonomic dysfunction.  Picking up items can even be helpful on high pain days when her hips, back, or knees are bothering her.  I use this task a lot in cold weather, because the cold limits the mobility in my girl’s hands, so she often drops what she’s holding.  When her hands have limited dexterity like this, it can be hard for her to pick up an item, so I can do it for her and then place the item in her hand.  Sometimes she drops things multiple times, but that’s okay — I could play fetch all day long, so I could do this all day long, too! (To be fair, sometimes it does elicit a sassy look from me, but would I really be me if I weren’t being sassy?)  The items I pick up most frequently are my leash, her phone, or her pill case, but I am so talented that I can even pick up a raw egg without breaking it, as well as a credit card on a flat surface!


[Image description: Kelsie is sitting at the foot of a couch and is holding a TV remote in her mouth, offering it to her handler (off camera).  She’s wearing a blue and black harness.]

I can also retrieve items that are at a slight distance when my girl points to what I’m supposed to retrieve.  This was also super easy for me to learn because it’s just a mini game of fetch!  Retrieving indicated items can be helpful when my girl is “grounded” by a migraine and cannot move around without a lot of pain.  I can also retrieve these indicated items when nausea or pain would make moving incredibly unpleasant for my girl, as well as when dizziness or other issues would make moving even a short distance not the best option for her.  Retrieving things for my girl can even help during periods of paralyzing anxiety, where my girl is “frozen” and cannot get up to fetch items that would be helpful to her (like her medication).

I can also retrieve a few named items when they’re out of sight or in a different room.  My best retrieval is getting my “at home” harness from the spot where it’s always supposed to be.  If my girl needs a little extra balance but can’t safely get to where she stores my gear, I can go get this harness for her.  During GI flares, for example, any kind of movement can be unpleasant, so I can fetch this harness and give her a little extra support while she’s walking around the house.

When I wear the right harness, I can do forward momentum pulling, where I act like a dog-sized tugboat for my girl by pulling into my harness while I’m walking as a way to save some of my girl’s energy.  I pull her along so that she doesn’t have to use as much energy while she’s walking, so she doesn’t get tired as fast as she would on her own.  Helping my girl conserve her energy is important because one of the symptoms that impacts her life the most is her chronic fatigue because it disrupts not only big plans, like going to appointments, but also small daily tasks, like brushing her teeth or getting dressed.  If I can help her save a spoon while she’s walking, then she can hopefully use that spoon during another part of her day to complete something on her To Do list.  Forward momentum pulling can also help keep my girl upright when she has bad nausea and just wants to curl up into a ball on the ground or when she feels dizzy and unstable on her feet — my forward momentum helps her stay balanced, just like a boat pulling a waterskier.

My forward momentum pulling also has a guiding aspect to it.  This is helpful when my girl has bad nausea so that she can focus on trying not to feel sick while I handle more complex things like navigating the environment so that my girl has one less thing to think about when she’s feeling sick.  The guiding aspect can also help when my girl has a migraine, especially when she becomes sensitive to light because of her migraines — she can just close her eyes against the light, and I’ll make sure I get us where I need to go.  I’m not trained to watch for “safe” traffic yet, but I do know how to turn left, turn right, stay straight, and stop.  I can also find a few specific locations, as well as some of the important people in her life.  I can even find them in unfamiliar places!  I love doing this task because my “reward” is getting to say hello to the person I found for my girl (which is usually someone I love, too).

I can also provide counterbalance to help my girl, a task where I lean my weight in the opposite direction she’s leaning in order to steady her, which can help with dizziness and with her migraine-induced balance issues.  However, although I still perform this task from time to time, we quickly learned that my counterbalance harnesses help greatly my girl’s proprioception, which is her body’s “awareness” of itself (if you want to learn more about proprioception, click on this link – which I really like because it’ll show you a lot of current research involving proprioception).  Just holding onto the handle on my harness can be enough to tell my girl’s body where she is in relation to the world around her and can be a strong enough signal to make her body respond appropriately when her brain is a little “frazzled.”  Now, simply wearing a harness is not a trained task (just like wearing a dress or a cute bow wouldn’t be a task either), but it certainly is a benefit of having me as her service dog!

Perhaps my favourite task of all is helping my girl (or her friends, or really anyone who asks me) to take off her socks.  I get so excited to take off her socks that sometimes I’m overly enthusiastic and will start offering her shoes and other items!  My girl had never before taught a dog to take off socks and decided to teach me how to do so on a whim while waiting to say goodnight to her niece and nephew in December of 2016.  I initially learned to take off her socks at the toe, a method that works well enough for ankle socks, but we quickly realized that toe-pulling can rip longer socks because they get stuck on the heel (ah, the challenges of owner-training a service dog!).  Nowadays, I aim for my girl’s heel when removing her socks — although sometimes I forget when I become too enthusiastic!  Those who know my girl may wonder why I take off her socks since she is physically able to do so herself.  Taking off her socks can be helpful when she’s extra tired from fatigue and needs to save her limited energy for getting ready for bed, which can be surprisingly draining if you don’t have much energy to spare.  It can also be helpful on days where her pain is really high or when she has a migraine, both of which would make any movement very uncomfortable, so when I take off her socks for her, I save her that discomfort.

I’ve now also extended this task to being able to take off different types of clothes, mainly pants and shirts (jackets and gloves can still be a little tricky!).  Because I remove her clothes, I can prevent her from bending over and making her nausea worse when it’s acting up, and, again, it can also be helpful on high pain days and migraine days when movement is painful.  Sometimes my girl is even to tired to fully get ready for bed, but wearing the day’s clothes can make my girl feel gross and distract her from falling asleep, even if she’s exhausted (thanks to “racing thoughts” at night, which I touched upon previously), so when I help her undress, it can help her get the sleep her body desperately needs.

One big way I can help my girl in her daily life is by helping her do the laundry.  Yes, you read that right: I willingly help my girl with “boring” chores!  Except they’re not boring to me, because it’s all just a fun game.  Laundry can be an exhausting and potentially pain-inducing task for my girl, but unfortunately, no matter how tired or sick you are, dirty underwear doesn’t spontaneously become clean!  So when I step in to help, my girl and I can do what needs to get done even if she isn’t feeling too great.

The strongest part of my laundry routine is helping my girl sort laundry.  Usually, my girl will take the whole dirty laundry hamper and empty it on the floor.  I help pick up the items and sort them into either the laundry basket, which will then get taken down to the laundry room (at least in this apartment setup), into the dirty laundry hamper to be washed another day, or into my girl’s hands if the item needs to be flipped inside-out.  My girl lets me choose the order in which I pick up the clothes, and I have a blast choosing just the right socks and shirts to give her!

I can also put things in the washing machine or take them out of the washing machine (which was slightly more relevant at our last apartment because the machines here are top-loading, but it’s still helpful when I help my girl’s girlfriend do her laundry – because of course I help her friends, too!).  I hold items super gently with my mouth, which is great when I’m picking up delicate items that can break easily, but it isn’t quite as great when a little force is needed to get clothes in or out of the washing machine.  I can do smaller items, like underwear and socks, with no problem, but bigger items can certainly be a challenge, especially when they have multiple arms and legs!  I can also push the washing machine door closed when my girl asks me too.


This isn’t me: it’s a Canine Companions for Independence dog!  But I can help with laundry just the same. [Image description: a yellow Labrador in a blue CCI vest holds a yellow towel in his mouth while looking at his handler for further instructions.  A washing machine full of clothes is behind him.]

Back in the winter of early 2016, my girl and I had a few minutes to spare before class, so she decided to teach me how to push the accessibility buttons that open doors.  It started as a fun trick to challenge my smart mind, but it’s actually become a helpful task!  This was particularly helpful at Dartmouth, which has many buildings with heavy doors (because that was the cool thing to do in the 1800s), and those heavy doors can be hard for anyone to open, especially for my girl on high pain or bad fatigue days.  I get very excited when I’m asked to hit an accessibility button with my paw, so it took me a while to learn how to do the job with finesse (instead of flailing excitedly) — but now I do it like a pro.  Currently, we don’t live in a town that is excessively accessible, but if we did, there is a very solid chance that my girl would be at least a part-time wheelchair user, in which case this task would be immensely helpful.  For now, though, it is still helpful on my girl’s worse health days, and as a perk, it’s also helpful when my girl is carrying a cup of hot tea!

Similarly, I have learned how to pay at register and check out, in case I should ever need to do so (e.g. if my girl and I move somewhere that is more wheelchair user-friendly).  Right now, of course, this is just a trick since my girl doesn’t need to use it, but I solidly know how to give a cashier my girl’s credit card, then take it back, and hand it to my girl, as well as removing a credit card from a chip reader.  As long as no one is waiting behind us in line at a store, my girl has me do this – partially to keep my skills sharp, but partially to melt hearts!

Although I like playing fetch, I haven’t always been open to the idea of holding something that I didn’t choose to hold, so it took a while for me to learn to hold things in my mouth when my girl asked me to (and not just spit them out!).  We’re still working on holding bigger and bigger items, as well as holding items for longer and longer amounts of time, but I can happily carry small things like pastry bags for my girl — and now that I know how to do it, I’m often pretty gosh darn proud of myself when I do!

Now that we’ve moved to a new apartment that has a bit more space, I’m slowly learning some new tasks that will offer some extra help to my girl around the house.  More room in an apartment, of course, means more room to spread out all my toys!  My girl is teaching me to clean up my toys and put them in their designated basket, a job that would normally require a lot of walking back and forth, bending over, and energy from my girl.  This isn’t necessarily restricted to just my toys, though: I can pick up any item that she indicates and then either give those items to her or drop them where she tells me to.  For example, I can throw trash away for her if she asks me to (and I actually have a command for that – appropriately named “Trash”).

I’m also working on being able to open and close doors, both of which have been tricky for me.  Opening doors has been hard for me to learn because I hold things very gently in my mouth, especially when I know I’m working and not playing so my girl has had to “trick” me into thinking that we’re playing a game of tug!  And closing doors has been tricky because I don’t like pressing things with my nose very hard, but I’m now able to close doors in a series of nose-boops.  Since my girl and I have our own room, opening and closing her door will be helpful for when she’s having a bad health day that requires rest but isn’t able to get out of bed.  Opening and closing doors ties into another task that I’m learning: retrieving a drink from a designated spot in the fridge.  This task requires me to open the fridge, grab the drink, hand it to my girl, and then return to close the fridge — and if I’m in my girl’s room with her, it could potentially require me to open and close her bedroom door, too.  When I’m able to retrieve a drink for her, she’ll be able to take medication even if she isn’t able to get out of bed (and also just stay hydrated, of course).

And now that my girl and I have our own bedroom, I’m learning how to turn the lights on and off.  When my girl gets sensitive to light due to a migraine, I’ll be able to turn off her bedroom light so she can recover in the comfort of a darkened room, and when she’s too tired to finish getting ready for bed, I can turn off the lights so that she can at least sleep in the dark and help her circadian rhythms.  And when she wakes up from panic attack-inducing nightmares but cannot get out of bed, I can turn on the lights to soothe her.

As you can see, I do a lot for my girl, and my job is always expanding as my girl and I encounter new environments (like this new apartment) and learn new ways that I can help her.  You may have picked up that sometimes the most helpful way I help my girl is doing tasks around the house for her, because her worst health days tend to confine her to the house or to her bed.  Most people think that having a Service Dog means “getting to take your dog everywhere with you,” but sometimes the most critical ways I help my girl are done in private, not in public.  But whether I’m inside or outside, wearing vest or wearing nothing, I love helping my girl when she asks me to!  The tasks I listed above are some of my favourite parts of my job – parts that I get a little too enthusiastic about at times – and I’m always happy to make my girl’s life a little easier.


Tail wags and puppy kisses,

Kelsie Iris
Like my content? Buy me a dog treat!
Also, check out these other posts of mine:
Service Dog team etiquette (particularly apropos after this post!)
Don’t distract Service Dogs
Spoon Theory
Confused? See my terms and abbreviations



If you missed Part 1 of this series, about how I help my girl as a Psychiatric Service Dog, click here.  To read Part 3 of this series, about how I help my girl as a Medical Alert and Response Service Dog, click here (publishing date TBD).


** Note: these numbers (and other numbers, too) are tossed around a lot but do NOT have a scientifically published backing to them.  Since I’ve attended all of my girl’s college classes and therefore attended all her lectures on biomechanics, I can attest that there is no “golden number” that ensures safety.  Safety for weight-bearing mobility is influenced by the handler’s size, the dog’s size, the dog’s structure, the tasks used, and the equipment used for those tasks.  The evaluation of whether an individual dog is suited to do specified weight-bearing mobility tasks in a given harness should be done by a veterinarian, or, at the very least, someone who is formally trained in biomechanics or orthopedics and therefore understands the way weight, height, and pressure affect the body and its joints.

*** Note: with wheelchair pulling, “handler’s weight” includes both your body weight and the weight of your wheelchair.  Also of note, some organizations train their autism service dogs in “tethering,” where the dog is trained to act as an anchor for a child that suddenly bolts (“child” since the overwhelming majority of organizations only train autism service dogs for children, despite autism being lifelong).  This would theoretically be considered a heavy mobility task since the full weight of the child is being applied to the dog.  However, tethering was not included in our list because it is not an acceptable task for a service dog to learn because it is not safe for either the dog or the child.


Got My BARKelor’s Degree: Dartmouth Graduation 2018


Looking so official in our matching graduation caps! [Image description: Allie, wearing a white lace dress, and Kelsie are sitting next to each other on a lush grassy lawn.  They’re both wearing black graduation caps and are smiling at the camera.]

Hello everyone!

I have exciting news: I graduated from Dartmouth!! Well, technically my girl did, but I attended graduation and walked across the stage with her – that counts, right? (and I’m pretty sure my attendance record in classes was better than some Dartmouth students’)

Although I didn’t wear a gown (it would have been too hot in the New Hampshire summer sun and humidity), I did get to wear a special graduation cap made just for dogs.  It was decorated beautifully by my girl’s girlfriend, and my girl decorated her own cap to match.


Image description: a closeup of Allie kneeling next to Kelsie.  Allie is wearing a graduation cap that reads “4 paws 2 hearts 1 diploma” and has teal, white, and gold decorations, and Kelsie is wearing a small graduation cap decorated in similar colours.

I wasn’t a huge fan of wearing my graduation cap, but I tolerated it because my girl put a lot of time into associating my cap with positive things like yummy treats and fetch.  Although humans can wear a graduation cap without much fuss, you definitely don’t want to wait until the day of graduation to put on your pup’s graduation cap!  Even seasoned Service Dogs like me (who are used to a lot of weird stuff) will find it to be a super funky experience if they’re not used to wearing hats.  My girl got my graduation cap in the fall (for a June graduation) and started putting it on me right away.  If you’re doing this with your pup, you’ll want to start with super short sessions — just on, treat and praise, immediately off — at first and gradually build up the time that your pup wears it.  Make sure to create positive associations with wearing the cap by offering high-value treat, lots of praise, xylitol-free peanut butter on a spoon, or whatever makes your pup happy (you can also use this technique for any kind of new gear for your dog, like head collars).  Even with all that conditioning, I wasn’t super thrilled about wearing my graduation cap (although the photos were pretty gosh darn cute, if I do say so myself).

(For anyone wondering, I got my graduation cap from Etsy, and it held up really well over time but did slip around quite a bit while I was walking.  To be fair, my girl’s human graduation cap also slid around.  Pro tip: use bobby pins!  We learned that too late for this graduation, but at least we’re prepared for next time.)

I have a secret to share: I’m not perfect, even after three years as a Service Dog.  Training, after all, is a lifelong process.  I have things I’m working on, and one of those things is applause.  I get super jazzed about applause — the humans are excited, so I should be excited, too, right?  If the applause goes on long enough, sometimes I’ll even bark, which is not acceptable for a Service Dog to do since Service Dogs cannot be disruptive (so you can see why my girl and I are working so hard on this behaviour).  Although my girl needs me, she didn’t want to bring me to graduation if I was going to be disruptive (she had faith that I’d be fine, though).  Luckily, the day before graduation had a ceremony called Class Day, which included a lot of applause, and since it took place right after graduation rehearsal, it was the perfect opportunity for a test run.  If I couldn’t handle it, my girl was prepared to leave Class Day and had already made arrangements for me to stay with a friend throughout the graduation ceremony.

But guess what: I was perfect!  I acted like an old pro — because I am an old pro!  I heeled beautifully during graduation rehearsal, and I was quiet and settled throughout the entirety of Class Day.  But there was a “fun” twist: a girl decided to bring her marginally-trained pet dog to graduation rehearsal and Class Day, and she ended up having to drag it away partway through Class Day.  Part of the reason is that her dog had noticed me and was whining and wiggling to get to me, but even at graduation rehearsal, it was way too excited to have any self-control — seeing another dog was just the cherry on top of an already overstimulation situation.  Luckily, the girl at least removed her dog instead of continually disrupting Class Day with her dog’s behaviour, but while she was there, it was still disruptive to everyone sitting around her (I, for the record, completely ignored the dog and didn’t even look at it — that’s what a real Service Dog does!).  So pro tip: if you have not put in the time and effort to train your dog to handle overstimulating environments, just leave it at home!!  Even if it is a Service Dog in training (which this dog wasn’t, based on its and its handler’s behaviour), slowly work up to super exciting environments — don’t just throw them into intense environments with little preparation and expect them to behave.  Always try to set your dog up for success!

Although I was perfect at Class Day, my girl still created a backup plan — Service Dogs aren’t robots, after all, and can have off days (although having an off day on graduation would have been such an unfortunate coincidence).  A friend was willing to take me partway through the ceremony if need be and keep me until my girl was finished with graduation.  Because the Dartmouth graduation ceremony is so long, graduates are allowed to get up to acquire water or go to the bathroom (because we were in the direct sun throughout graduation, my girl and I actually got up so that I could lie in the shade and cool off for a bit) — so it wouldn’t have been a big deal for my girl to discreetly get up and hand me off to a waiting friend.  Luckily, we never needed to rely on that because I was perfect!  Three years of training set me up for success, and I was a very good girl with all the commotion and excitement.

Another way that I was set up for success was being thoroughly exercised on the morning of graduation itself.  As the saying goes, a tired dog is a well-behaved dog!  My girl and I were reminded of this during Lavender Graduation (the small LGBT+ community graduation).  I didn’t have adequate exercise before Lavender Grad, so I was super riled up by all the applause and cheering (which was a lot, because the LGBT+ community is very supportive of one another).  And unfortunately, my girl couldn’t remove me from the situation because it was storming and the ceremony was an outdoor tent — it was quite an embarrassing situation for both of us!  My girl felt really bad about showcasing bad Service Dog behaviour in front of a whole community, especially because she works hard to show off my good behaviour because Dartmouth has an epidemic of people bringing their untrained ESAs where they’re not supposed to.  Afterward, every time we ran into someone from Lavender Grad, we profusely apologized and tried to educate on proper Service Dog behaviour (by saying that my barking and excitement were not acceptable at all).

So, because of this, my girl was determined to wear me out before graduation.  I played a long game of fetch to get all of my wiggles out — we didn’t want any wiggles left so that it wouldn’t be a challenge to settle during the 3+ hours of graduation.  Indeed, I was able to chill throughout the whole ceremony — which was particularly important because I was in the front row, so any excessive movement from me would’ve been highly distracting )and yes, it was a lot of pressure being the star of graduation, but a princess like me knows how to look good for the cameras, obviously!).


The professional photographer captured me sitting attentively at my girl’s feet…unfortunately with my graduation cap askew, how embarrassing! [Image description: Kelsie is wearing a black harness and staring intently off camera. Her decorated graduation cap is hanging around her neck rather than sitting on her head. The legs of people wearing graduation robes are visible behind her.] (Photo credits go to the professional photographer at the graduation)

Sitting in the hot sun for 3+ hours certainly requires a little bit of forethought if you’re a human graduate (e.g. water bottle, sunscreen), but it requires double the forethought when you’re also bringing a furry toddler with you to the ceremony (aka me, the cutest furry toddler ever!) — actually, it requires more like triple the forethought because if you have a Service Dog, then you also have a disability (or a disabling chronic illness) and you have to plan ahead for all the challenges and potential problems associated with that.  Luckily, Dartmouth has a policy (probably because of the super long ceremony) that graduates can bring anything (within reason) with them to graduation, and my girl and I took full advantage of that policy!  My girl brought along a huge bottle of water for the both of us, as well as a purse that held a collapsible water bowl, enough kibble for my breakfast and lunch, my gentle leader (another safety net to ensure flawless behaviour), sunscreen, sunglasses (which my girl wore), and my girl’s phone.  I, of course, carried emergency info, meds, and my girl’s ID like I always do.  Between the two of us, we were set to cover any problem that might come up – whether it was her light sensitivity, my behaviour, or even just the UV index.

I opted to wear just my black Y-front harness (no cape) to look sleek for all the graduation photos.  Fun fact of the day, though: did you know that if you wear 5-inch heels, suddenly your counterbalance handle becomes 5 inches too short?  Yeah, that thought did not occur to my girl beforehand, whoops!  Luckily, though, we didn’t have to do much standing, and since momentum pulling gives my girl balance while we’re walking, the short counterbalance handle ended up not being a big deal.  But we definitely won’t make that mistake next time!

I was a good girl throughout the ceremony, and most importantly, I showcased exactly how a trained Service Dog should behave when I walked across the stage with my girl — cool, calm, and collected and 100% focused on my job, not soliciting attention from the people around us.  I hope it showed the Dartmouth community that a Service Dog is the product of hundreds of hours of training and hard work (read: blood, sweat, and tears), and I can only hope that my good behaviour serves as a reminder to why task-trained Service Dogs like me are allowed to accompany their handlers throughout campus but untrained ESAs are not.

I did have one hiccup in my behaviour: as I was walking through the audience with my girl in a procession of the graduates, a small pet dog suddenly burst out of the crowd to try to get to me, and it barked at me loudly.  I was startled (so was my girl), especially since the dog was so close to me, and I let out a bark in response.  My girl corrected me, and I went back to behaving as expected — these things happen sometimes (although why did that person have a small dog in a big crowd and why weren’t they afraid that someone would step on their dog?).

All the hustle and excitement of graduation took a toll on my girl, and even I was tired from all the stimulation — we both napped for hours afterward, before eventually joining some visiting family members for post-graduation festivities (which included swimming in a pond and a lot of fetch for me!).


Relaxing in the grass after graduation! [Image description: Kelsie is lying in the sunshine on a lawn while panting, and she looks like she’s smiling.  There’s a blue ball at her feet.]

Graduation was the culmination of my girl’s undergraduate academic endeavours, and it was also the culmination of three years and over 1000 hours of Service Dog training for me.  I think it’s safe to say that we both learned a lot both in and out of the classroom, as well as from each other.  It wasn’t always an easy journey and graduation for either of us was never a guarantee (not all dogs are cut out to be Service Dogs, and my girl’s physical and mental health were not wholly predictable), but we managed to do it together as a team and create many memories along the way.  Who knew we could achieve so much together?

Right now, we’re back home in California catching up on some highly needed R&R, and I’m enjoying all the fetch I get to play with both my girl and her mom.  But what’s next for us after this?  You’ll just have to wait and see!

Love and puppy kisses,

Kelsie Iris
PS I’m convinced that Mindy Kaling (the graduation speaker and Dartmouth ’01) looked at me more than once throughout the ceremony!  I mean, I was in the front row and I’m massively adorable — how could she not? (But goodness, the behavioural expectations were so high for me since I was right in front for her, and all of those professors, to see.  I caught more than one person glancing at me and smiling, so I hope everyone thought I was a good girl!)
Like my content? Buy me a dog treat!
Also, check out these other posts of mine:
Service Dog team etiquette (particularly apropos after this post!)
Don’t distract Service Dogs
Spoon Theory
Confused? See my terms and abbreviations

Traveling to Hawaii with a Service Dog

Aloha, my virtual ohana!!

If you can tell from my greeting, I have been vacationing in Hawaii with my girl!  Although I’ve definitely had to work since I’m a Service Dog, I have had my fair share of vacation time with plenty of frolicking in the turquoise waves.

My girl notoriously says that preparing for our trip to Hawaii was more stressful than her fall term finals, and I believe her!  We had to do a lot to prepare to make sure that I could come along with her and wouldn’t have to spend the vacation in quarantine.  Because traveling to Hawaii is not like traveling with a Service Dog to any other state, I thought I’d provide an overview of how to travel to Hawaii with a Service Dog for anyone else who might find this useful, especially since the requirements for a Service Dog entering Hawaii are slightly different from a pet entering Hawaii.  Of course, I am just a dog and am not the definitive authority on Hawaii quarantine protocols.  For the most accurate and up-to-date information, you’ll find what you need on the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s website, and you can email HDOA with any questions you have — and they’re really good at replying super quickly!

Here’s a short list of the paperwork you’ll need:

  1. Current rabies vaccination more than 90 days before arrival (send this information to Hawaii ahead of time)
  2. Pass the OIE-FAVN rabies test 120 days before arrival (send this information to Hawaii ahead of time)
  3. Flight and location information (send this information to Hawaii ahead of time)
  4. List of tasks that your Service Dog has been trained to perform for you
  5. Health certificate given within 30 days of arrival (take this with you to Hawaii)
  6. Treatment with an approved product designed to kill ticks within 14 days of arrival (take this with you to Hawaii)

Although HDOA accepts documents through snail mail, I would recommend faxing them the necessary documents so that you don’t run the risk of the documents getting lost in the mail or taking longer to arrive than intended (my girl once sent her older sister a card in middle school that didn’t arrive until high school).  Anything that you need to send ahead of time can be faxed to HDOA at 1-808-483-7161 using any number of free online fax resources, including MyFax, GotFreeFax, or FaxZero (all of these were recommended by HDOA, and none of these require the sender to have a physical fax machine, just an email address).  However, for all the documentation that you need to fax ahead of time, I highly recommend that you bring a physical copy with you as well because you can never be too prepared!

Four Months before Arrival

More than 120 days before your arrival, have your vet perform an OIE-FAVN test, run by Kansas State University.  KSU must have received your dog’s blood sample at least 120 days before your arrival.  Your dog will need a microchip in order to process the blood sample and must be at least 12 months old for the test to be run.  Results needs to be greater than or equal to 0.5 IU/mL in order for your dog to be released in Hawaii.  The good news is that once you take this test, the results are valid for three years! (so if you want to plan another trip to Hawaii in the next 36 months…)  Although the results should be sent directly from KSU to Hawaii, a copy should also be sent to your vet, so I highly recommend getting a copy of the results from your vet to send to HDOA if you ask and find out that they have not received it, and also just to have on hand at the airport because it never hurts to have too many copies of all the necessary documents!

Three Months before Arrival

More than 90 days before your arrival should be the date of your dog’s most recent rabies shot.  Rabies shots are usually good for a few years, so this may not be an issue for you, unless your dog received an annual shot for their last vaccination.  However, if your dog’s rabies shot is nearing its expiration date, I highly recommend getting the shot done more than 90 days in advance of your arrival in Hawaii.  The state of Hawaii has never had an incident of rabies, so HDOA is very strict about rabies protocol for animals entering the state.  Having more protection, then, is definitely a good way to play it safe!

Two Weeks before Arrival

Within 14 days of your arrival, you should have an appointment with your vet so that they can give your dog a health certificate and treat your dog with a product containing Fipronil.  The certificate must be issued not more than 30 days of your arrival, and it must state that your dog was treated with a product containing Fipronil or a similar product labeled to kill ticks (I take Bravecto every three months to kill ticks and fleas, and a dose of Bravecto within 14 days of arrival is sufficient to meet this requirement).  Ask your vet to double-check that the product that your dog is being given contains Fipronil.  Your dog’s rabies information, including vaccine name, lot/serial number, expiration date, vaccination date, and booster interval, must be included on the certificate.  A valid health certificate is required for each entry into Hawaii.  And just a note, if your Service Dog does not pass the health certificate, then you might have bigger problems than just not being able travel to Hawaii since you’re working a sick dog.  You can fax the health certificate beforehand if you would like (my girl and I did, just to be safe), but you can also bring it with you physically to Hawaii.

One Week before Arrival

This is not required, but 7 days or more before your arrival, feel free to call the Rabies Quarantine Branch to have them meet you in the terminal and have your process go more quickly, as long as you’re arriving between 8 am and 4 pm.  My girl and I arrived at 9 pm, so we did not do this option.  However, a faster process is definitely helpful!

One Day before Arrival

At least 24 hours before your arrival, send the Rabies Quarantine Branch information regarding your flights and where you will be staying in Hawaii.  This information can be faxed.

Day of Travel and Arrival

Your Service Dog must be traveling with you (the disabled handler) upon arrival in Hawaii.  When you arrive, you must bring your dog to the Airport Animal Quarantine Holding Facility, where your documents will be verified and your dog will be examined for external parasites.  After you’re approved, you’re free to go and start your vacation!  And once in Hawaii, a handler with a Service Dog has the same rights as in any other state, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Since this all requires a lot of planning in advance, I highly recommend mapping out your timeline about six months before your trip so that you make sure you can check off everything on your list and do everything correctly.  Leaving plans until the last minute will only make the process more stressful!  Communication with HDOA will make the entire process go more smoothly.  When I stopped by the quarantine facility at the airport, my examination and verification process took not more than ten minutes because all the paperwork had been completed and sent to HDOA ahead of time.  It was quick and painless! (although I was convinced that I was at the vet and acted very sheepish, whoops!)


I’m very happy that I got to go to Hawaii with my girl! (Photo shows Kelsie sitting on a beach while wearing a purple lei, and she’s “smiling” at the camera.)


Best of luck on your adventures!

Kelsie Iris
Like my content? Buy me a dog treat!
Also, check out these other posts of mine:
Service Dog team etiquette (particularly apropos after this post!)
Don’t distract Service Dogs
Spoon Theory
Confused? See my terms and abbreviations

Service Dogs and Boobs – A Loving Repost of the Complete Guide


Photo shows Kelsie squinting (from a camera flash) while wearing a white and mint-colored bra around her chest.

This is a complete copy-and-paste of a post from The Girl Upstairs, because I want to immortalize her words just in case her post ever gets deleted since I think her comparison is absolutely brilliant, so I take absolutely no credit whatsoever for her fabulous ideas and turns of phrase.  Without any further ado:

I will be the first to admit that I’ve had some truly awkward moments with my service dog- having her crawl into the stall next to mine in a public bathroom; cleaning mounds of dog puke out of the back seat of my mother’s car less than a week after I got her; trying to shuffle people around me on the sidewalk because she decided to poop in the center of the walkway and then having to explain why I was late for class; trying to convince someone that it really was the dog who farted, in a public space of course, and yes I know it smells terrible; having people give me strange looks in a movie theater when they hear a loud and unexpected voice whisper, “Get back here! You do not need to go on a popcorn odyssey!” As awkward as these moments may be for me, none of them are as awkward as encountering someone who doesn’t know how to behave around a service dog.
Now, before I get into the do’s and don’ts of service dog etiquette, there is a word that I am going to repeat over and over again until it is no longer uncomfortable for all of you lovely people out there to read. Is everyone ready? Here we go:
I hope that helped.
Now that we have that out of the way, hopefully we can continue without this being too uncomfortable for anyone.
There are certain rules that one should adhere to when around a service dog that is not their own so that the dog can work the most efficiently, but instead of asking everyone out there to memorize a list of rules (which I know no one will do), I’m going to give you a simple rule-of-thumb that will make service dog etiquette easier than you could have ever thought possible. This will change your perspective on life. Are you ready?
Treat the service dog like a boob.
I’m serious. That’s it. That’s all you have to remember.

There are certain things that no person should or would (hopefully) ever do in regards to boobs. The following is a list of things that if you ever said or did any of them, you would earn yourself a well deserved slap.

“Look at that girl’s boobs! *points* Hey, everybody! That girl has boobs!”
“Am I allowed to sit next to you? I don’t want your boobs to bite me or anything. Maybe I should just sit on the other side of the room…”

“Can I touch your boobies!?”

“Why do you have to have those boobs with you? I’m just not so sure they’re necessary.”
“BOOBIES!! *grabs without permission*”
“Are your boobs aggressive? Do they bite?”
“I just don’t know how I feel about letting someone with boobs in here. It’s just unsanitary, you know? You understand, right?”

“Hi, little boobies! I’ve got a treat for you! You want a treat, little boobies?”

“Are you sure your boobs are real? You aren’t blind or in a wheelchair. How do I know you don’t have fake boobs? Do you have paperwork proving that they’re real boobs?”
“Are your boobs going to behave themselves? I don’t want any disruptions.”
“Look, honey! That girl has boobies! Go pet her boobies! What? What do you mean my kid can’t pet your boobs? That’s so rude of you!”
“Are your boobs going to be able to handle this situation? They aren’t going to get scared and freak out, are they?”
“How dare you have boobs when there’s nothing wrong with you! There is a disabled veteran out there that served our country that actually deserves to have those boobs, and needs those boobs, and you took those boobs away from them! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“I know it’s none of my business, but why do you have boobs?”
“Why is that girl allowed to have boobs in here! I want boobs too!”
As humorous as all of this is, it is actually a genuine problem for people like me who have a legitimate service dog for an invisible illness. Replace the words “boobs” and “boobies” with “dog,” “service dog,” and “puppy,” and you will have a list of actual comments people have made to me- most of them by complete strangers who have never seen me before in their lives, and who began their conversation with me this way.
Please don’t be the ignorant individual who makes comments like these, about boobs or service dogs. People who have a disability already feel like they stick out like a sore thumb. We know we are different. We are aware that we have a walking, fuzzy billboard saying that something is wrong with us. It will not kill you to not know what is wrong with us, nor will it kill you if you don’t pet our service dogs. Going out into

public is already uncomfortable enough without having a random stranger stare, gawk, point at us, chase us, or make rude comments.

So remember, if you aren’t sure if you should do something around a service dog, or say something to the dog’s handler, just ask yourself, “Would I do that to/say that about someone’s boobs?”

Or better yet, just ignore the dog altogether and let it do its job. After all, that’s why it’s there.



Thanks for reading!

Kelsie Iris
Check out these other posts of mine:
Service Dog team etiquette (particularly apropos after this post!)
Don’t distract Service Dogs
Spoon Theory
Confused? See my terms and abbreviations
Like my content? Buy me a dog treat!

How I Help My Girl as a Psychiatric Service Dog

A Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) helps a handler who is legally disabled by one or more mental health problems.  First, please note that my girl and I do not use the terms “mental illness” or “psychological disorder” because we personally do not believe in perpetuating these terms.  My girl and I have taken enough neuroscience, biology, and psychology classes to believe that disorders usually classified as psychological are actually biological or neurological in nature.  For example, most people would easily classify Parkinson’s as neurological, and yet many of the pathways and neurological underpinnings of Parkinson’s are also shared by disorders that most people automatically classify as “psychological.”  And if diabetes is an inability to produce insulin appropriately and depression is an inability to produce serotonin appropriately, shouldn’t we classify both of them as “chemical disorders,” rather than one as a physical illness and one as a mental illness?  (Of course, this is vastly simplified both disorders, but you can see my point.)  The more research reveals about so-called “psychological” disorders, the more we find biological underpinnings that explain these illnesses.  The so-called “mental” aspects of these illnesses are actually biologically derived, just like any other physical health problem.  My girl and I believe that part of the stigma of mental health problems comes from labels that imply that these illnesses are “all in your head,” and through avoiding potentially harmful labels, we hope to decrease that stigma as much as possible.

Although I am usually very open about my girl’s health problems and struggles, mental health problems can be incredibly personal in nature, especially since they are often associated with difficult moments in an individual’s life, so at this time, I’m not going to share her specific diagnoses.  However, I will at least say that she has depression and anxiety, but please remember that these are general terms for her problems, not the technical terms used by the medical community for her diagnoses.

As a psychiatric service dog, I primarily — or, at least, most overtly — help my girl with her anxiety disorders.  My girl gets panic attacks, but she experiences two “kinds” of panic attacks: “twitchy” panic attacks, which probably fit most people’s idea of what a panic attack looks like and are characterized by nervous ticks and other “stereotypical” anxious responses, and “paralyzed” panic attacks, which more resemble a catatonic state and are characterized by a “frozen” countenance and a kind of “dissociation” from the surroundings.

I can alert my girl to rising anxiety and impending panic attacks by making her aware of behaviours or chemical changes in her body that indicate increased anxiety or panic.  Most of the time, these anxiety indicators are associated with her “twitchy” panic attacks, so I am better able to alert her to that kind of panic attack compared to her “paralyzed” panic attacks.  During or immediately before a “twitchy” panic attack, my girl often does nervous scratching, where she will scratch at herself until she bleeds, usually without being conscious of what she’s doing.  I have been trained to paw at her, particularly at her scratching hand, in order to interrupt the behaviour (a task sometimes referred to as “interruption of self-mutilation”).  Pawing at my girl also serves to alert her to a panic attack that is occurring or about to occur so that the can take steps to avoid it or dissipate it through removing herself from a stressful situation, having me give her Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), taking medication, or pursuing other strategies.  My girl also often does hand shaking or hand fidgeting during an anxious episode or when her anxiety is rising.  Some might classify this behaviour as a kind of stimming behaviour, but regardless of what you call it, I notice when my girl starts to do her anxious hand shaking, which she often doesn’t realize she’s doing due to her anxious mindset.  Like with the nervous scratching, I will paw at my girl in order to draw her attention to the anxious behaviour and to alert her to her rising anxiety so that she can respond to it to prevent it from coming a full panic attack, even though the hand fidgeting itself is not harmful by itself.  I have even started to pick up on foot bouncing, which my girl does not do as often but frequently does in conjunction with her scratching or hand flapping.


This is a picture of me doing a paw alert.  As you can see, I hit my girl with one paw while looking directly at her so that she knows I’m trying to communicate with her.

Because anxiety and panic attacks are associated with elevated cortisol levels and increased heart rate, I can also pick up on changes in cortisol and heart rate in my girl and will paw at her to indicate that she should respond to rising anxiety even if she isn’t exhibiting any of her stereotypical anxious behaviours.  As a disclaimer, not all my alerts are equally strong as one another, because some precursors and indicators happen more frequently, some associated scents are subtler, and some behaviours or scents are easier to replicate in a training session if a scent sample isn’t available.  Furthermore, you may have noticed that all of my alerts related to anxiety are performed by pawing at my girl: they all have the same alert behaviour so that my girl knows that I’m specifically alerting to her anxiety or panic and not to one of her other health problems.  Having one alert behaviour associated with anxiety helps my girl to understand what I’m communicating to her so that she can make an appropriate response as quickly as possible.

When I was describing how my girl can respond to my anxiety alerts, I  mentioned Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) as an option.  DPT is a method of firm, tactile sensory input that has a calming effect on the whole body.  Swaddling, firm hugs, and weighted blankets can all provide DPT, but Service Dogs can also be trained to offer DPT.  You may remember from your high school biology class that activation of your sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response and the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system is your “rest and digest” response.  Increased anxiety is associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is why you feel a rapid heartbeat when you’re anxious.  Deep Pressure Therapy stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the effects of the sympathetic nervous system because it performs the “opposite” jobs of the sympathetic nervous system (e.g. the parasympathetic nervous system slows your heartbeat).  I give my girl DPT by applying as much of my bodyweight to my girl as possible.  Ideally, I lie on top on my girl and attempt to lean into her body while she lies on the ground, because pressure on her chest is the most effective at reducing her anxiety (essentially, I act as a weighted vest).  However, not all situations are conducive to having my girl lie on the floor, so we improvise when we need to.  Alternate versions of DPT for us can include having me lie on my girl’s legs while she sits on the ground or having me lean across my girl’s lap while she’s sitting in a chair.  Of course, that last option is least preferred because I can’t apply my full bodyweight, so I can’t give my girl the full benefits of DPT.  Also, please note that DPT is not just “cuddling.”  Rather, it’s specifically applied pressure and is a trained task, and during my training, I was rewarded the more pressure I applied to my girl.

Sources related to the effectiveness of DPT: 1, 2, 3, 4

I also mentioned that my girl has “dissociative” or “paralyzed” panic attacks that don’t appear to have any physical cues that she can replicate in training (unlike before with her scratching).  Automatic DPT doesn’t seem to be able to remove her from her trance-like state, so instead, I offer tactile stimulation, where I lick her, and persistently insist that she play with me.  I just naturally started offering my girl a toy when she was in a “paralyzed” panic attack.  When I’m bored and feeling particularly playful, I can be very insistent that somebody acknowledge me!  I will continually bring over toys and even paw at the person until they give me attention and play with me.  I’m a princess, so the world has to revolve around me, right?!  Eventually, my persistence would pay off, and my girl would come back to reality.  I’m still working on learning when my girl is in a “paralyzed” panic attack, and since my girl has no memory of the time when she’s experiencing one, we aren’t able to replicate it easily.  But I’m getting better and faster at responding with each one!

Remember, in the United States, the ADA requires that a task be “individually trained,” meaning that a Service Dog can’t just naturally offer the behaviour on their own but rather that the Service Dog must be trained to do that behaviour.  If a dog exhibits a natural tendency to do something that is beneficial to their handler, that natural behaviour can be intentionally shaped into a task, and this intentional shaping would count as training.  Although I naturally started licking at my girl and interrupting her panic attacks through play, my girl is transforming this into a trained task by rewarding me heavily when she wakes up from her trance-like state.  This reward reinforces the behaviour that I’m offer so that I’m more likely to do it again during a similar situation in the future.  This conditioning over time is what will make it a trained task.

“Watch My Back” is another one of the many tasks that I do for my girl, along with the “sister” command “Cover”. I stand behind her for “Watch My Back” and in front of her for “Cover,” and the barrier created by my body helps to put her more at ease in a public situation, often for a long enough period of time for her to focus on her shopping, pay for an item at the register, or even just stand in line.  “Watch My Back” and “Cover” are useful for when my girl is feeling particularly anxious or hypervigilant.  These feelings can arise when my girl’s anxiety disorders are acting up and occur especially when she’s feeling tired.  When your body gets tired, your your prefrontal cortex (PFC) also gets tired!  Your PFC controls logical thought and works to inhibit your amygdala, which controls your emotions.  In people with anxiety disorders (like my girl), the amygdala tends to be overactive, which results in a lot of the fear and stress that characterize anxiety disorders. A “tired” PFC can’t inhibit very well, so the amygdala gets “loud,” especially in people with anxiety disorders. If you don’t have an anxiety disorder, your PFC gets “tired” throughout the day, so you still may experience this as having racing thoughts or becoming particularly emotional late at night. For my girl, being tired often means increased hypervigilance in public, so it’s super helpful if I watch her back to let her know she’s okay so that she can run errands and go about her life as normally as possible.

Sources related to the connection between the PFC, amygdala, and hypervigilance: 123, 4

One of my girl’s emergency medications can make her incredibly drowsy and “out of it,” and even her cocktail of medications can cause these side effects, which can be disabling and disorienting.  When my girl experiences these side effects, I can help her through light guide work.  I’m not a guide dog and I have no plans of changing careers anytime soon (I’m far too opinionated to be trusted with such power!), but I can do basic guiding in as-needed and emergency situations, especially since it’s very similar to my forward momentum pulling task.  My main objective is to make sure that my girl does not run into anyone or anything: when my girl is feeling “out of it” from her medications, her processing time is often decreased, which means that she may not be able to interpret that an object or person is in her way before it’s too late!  I am not currently trained to watch for “safe” traffic or to indicate the presence of curbs, but my basic training is functional enough for us at the moment.  I know a few places, with my strongest command being “go home” (although I’ve also been to the Life Sciences Center so frequently that I also know what “go Bio” means and can even lead my girl there from her apartment, which is about a mile away!).  My girl is still wary to trust me though, because I’ve been known to “accidentally” run her into bushes!  I can tell the difference between an emergency and a training session, so luckily, she’ can always rely on me when she really needs to.

Of course, I also help my girl’s mental health problems by offering emotional support and by giving her a routine.  Neither of these are tasks, as defined by the ADA, but nonetheless they are still incredibly important ways that I help my girl in her day-to-day life.  My companionship means that my girl is never alone, even on her hardest and darkest days, and when she’s feeling like a puddle, I’m a good excuse for her to get out of bed, go outside for fetch or walks, and follow at least a very basic routine so that her depression does not completely consume her.  At the end of the day, we are best friends and partners in crime, and sometimes that’s the most important part of my job!

And just a final note: PSDs can do many more tasks than what I do for my girl because different handlers will need different tasks depending on how their mental health problems individually affect them.  My tasks are tailored to what my girl needs, but another Psychiatric Service Dog may have a completely separate set of tasks that still helps their handler.  No matter the tasks, though, every Service Dog has such an essential job to do, and no Service Dog is more important than another!


Thanks for reading,

Kelsie Iris
Like my content? Buy me a dog treat!

What’s Trending Now: My Current Gear Collection

Gear: it’s both a fashion statement and a functional necessity for service dogs.  Every service dog team is different, so each team will have a unique set of gear that works best for them.  It has taken my girl and me about a year to establish what works best for our team, and we’re still adjusting our gear very frequently as we learn about new products and gear setups from other teams.  However, when starting out the process, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what gear will work for your team, especially when beginning as an owner-trainer since you don’t have a program to give you “starter” gear.  If you start out researching how to owner-train a service dog and what gear your dog should wear like my girl did, then the sheer amount of service dog gear available can seem overwhelming (a good place to start is my SD gear checklist or even the list of gear I wore during the summer of 2016).  Alternately, resources on owner-training are limited, so sometimes it can seem like the only options are either a guide dog harness or a traditional Service Dog vest.

So here is what I wear/switch between on a daily basis! (I’ve broken everything down into categories to make reading through everything easier)


Pictured: Kelsie lying on her side and wearing a patterned blue 1.5″ buckle martingale from dogsbythebay, her black leather saxonleatherart harness, a red “Hands Off!” luggage tag, and her blue DD Service Dog Designs cape covered with patches (see the article for patch descriptions).

Gear Setups

  • Working Setup #1:
    • saxonleatherart black leather harness
    • DD Service Dog Designs BLD-style cape OR COZYHORSE backpack cape OR Dog Capes vest
    • 1.5″ buckle martingale
    • GreyDogDesigns pull strap, Bridgeport guide handle, or WireDog bridge handle
    • Bold Lead Designs leather or Brahma guide dog leash (sometimes a hands free leash)
  • Working Setup #2:
    • WireDog vest, usually with saddlebags
    • 1.5″ buckle martingale collar
    • GreyDogDesigns pull strap
    • Bold Lead Designs leather or Brahma guide dog leash (sometimes a hands free leash)
  • Convertible work-to-play Setup:
    • PongoPetz full utility harness
    • Dog Capes vest
    • 1.5″ buckle martingale collar
    • Bold Lead Designs leather or Brahma guide dog leash (sometimes a hands free leash
  • Off Duty Setup #1:
    • PongoPetz full utility harness
    • Molle pocket bag
    • GreyDogDesigns pull strap
    • 1.5″ buckle martingale collar
    • normal 6′ leash
  • Off Duty Setup #2:
    • Outward Hound owl backpack
    • GreyDogDesigns pull strap
    • 1.5″ buckle martingale collar
    • normal 6′ leash
  • Alternative Working Setup:
    • saxonleatherart dragon harness
    • Guide Dog Users, Inc. pouch
    • 1.5″ buckle martingale collar
    • Bold Lead Designs leather or Brahma guide dog leash (sometimes a hands free leash)
  • Around-the-House Setup:
    • sowinkadesign harness

Full List of Gear

  • saxonleatherart (Etsy) custom black leather harness: The lovely woman who runs saxonleatherart made me my own custom harness modeled after an ActiveDogs harness.  It has a handle made out of super soft leather that’s super comfy in my girl’s hand, and even the rest of the harness leather is super high quality with beautiful stitching to finish it off.  It came with a chest plate, which is sometimes used and sometimes not depending on the day.  If I don’t wear the chest plate, then I wear an Active Dogs Sherpa cover on the strap.
  • DD Service Dog Designs (Facebook) BLD-style cape: It is royal blue with zippered pockets.  Instead of having a belly buckle, it has a belly strap that snaps on both sides, which is nice because my girl can take off my cape easily whether I’m on her right or her left side.  My girl is also super sensitive to the noise that velcro makes, so she loves that the harness attachments are snaps instead of velcro!
    • patienceandlove143 (Etsy) symbol patch: In a custom 5″ x 1.9″ size, they each have three symbols on them: a crossed out hand, a crossed out speech bubble, and a crossed out eye.  The design is black, red, and white with a teal border.  One is located on both the left and the right sides of the cape.
    • patienceandlove143 custom patch: 1″ x 4″ in size, it is a custom designed white, red, and black “Do Not Separate From Handler” patch that features a small medical star next to the text, with a caduceus in the center of the star.  Located on the left side of the cape.
    • MuttButt Gear (Instagram) custom patch: 2″ x 4″ in size, it has a symbol of a hand crossed out with “Do Not Distract” beside it, and underneath both of those is “Ignore Me.”  Located on the center panel of the cape.
    • MuttButt Gear custom patch: 1″x4″ in size, it says “Severe light & sound sensitivity.”  Located on the center panel of the cape.
    • DannyLuann Embroidery (Etsy) patch: 1″x4″ in size, it is a white, red, and black “Emergency Info Inside” patch that features a small red cross next to the wording.  Located on the right side of the cape.
  • COZYHORSE (Etsy) backpack cape: Mine is a size 7×17″ in royal blue and is customized to have a plain centre instead of an ID holder and a small zippered pocket, and it combines the BLD-style cape with a saddlebag/pack design for more pocket space.  The pockets have reflective strips.
    • patienceandlove143 symbol patches: In a custom 5″ x 1.9″ size, they each have three symbols on them: a crossed out hand, a crossed out speech bubble, and a crossed out eye.  The design is black, red, and white with a teal border.  One is located on both the left and the right sides of the cape.
    • patienceandlove143 custom patch: 1″ x 4″ in size, it is a custom designed white, red, and black “Do Not Separate From Handler” patch that features a small medical star next to the text, with a caduceus in the center of the star.  Located on the left side of the cape.
    • MuttButt Gear patch: 2″ x 4″ in size, it has a symbol of a hand crossed out with “Do Not Distract” beside it, and underneath both of those is “Ignore Me.”  Located on the center panel of the cape.
    • MuttButt Gear patch: 1″x4″ in size, it says “Severe light & sound sensitivity.”  Located on the center panel of the cape.
    • DannyLuann Embroidery patch: 1″x4″ in size, this is a white, red, and black “Emergency Info Inside” patch that features a small red cross next to the wording.  Located on the right side of the cape.
  • Dog Capes Blue Dog Vest:
    • patienceandlove143 symbol patches: In a custom 5″ x 1.9″ size, they each have three symbols on them: a crossed out hand, a crossed out speech bubble, and a crossed out eye.  The design is black, red, and white with a teal border.  One is located on both the left and the right sides of the cape.
    • patienceandlove143 custom patch: 1″ x 4″ in size, it is a custom designed white, red, and black “Do Not Separate From Handler” patch that features a small medical star next to the text, with a caduceus in the center of the star.  Located on the left side of the cape.
    • DannyLuann Embroidery patch: 1″x4″ white, red, and black “Emergency Info Inside” patch that features a small red cross next to the wording.  Located on the right side of the cape.
    • SitStay circular patch: I got the white, red, and black patch with a 3.5″ diameter.  It has a black hand crossed out in the center, and around the circumference are the words “Please Don’t Pet Me I’m Working.”  I have this on my WireDog vest.
  • WireDog Classic Harness Vest: My first vest ever, and it’s still going strong!  Mine is in royal blue and fits a 26-30″ girth.  I customized mine to have a “Service Dog” patch on each side (rather than on the left and on the top), which WireDog did for no additional cost (thanks WireDog!).  My girl loves the rubber handle for tactile stimulation and for momentum pulls up stairs, and the three D-rings are helpful for attaching saddlebags (which WireDog also offers on their website).
    • MuttButt Gear patch: 2″ x 4″ in size, has the symbol of a hand crossed out with “Do Not Distract” next to that, and underneath both of those is “Ignore Me.”  Located on the saddle bag that I place on the right side of the vest.
    • DannyLuann Embroidery patch: 1″x4″ white, red, and black “Emergency Info Inside” patch that features a small red cross next to the wording. Located on the saddle bag that I place on the right side of the vest.
    • patienceandlove143 (Etsy) custom patches: I got mine in the white, red, and black shown in the photo and in the smaller 4.5″x1″ size.  Love this patch!  It has a crossed out hand, a crossed out speech bubble, a crossed out eye, and a crossed out camera.  Located on the saddle bag that I place on the left side of the vest.
    • SitStay circular patch: I got the white, red, and black patch with a 3.5″ diameter.  It has a black hand crossed out in the center, and around the circumference are the words “Please Don’t Pet Me I’m Working.”  I have this on my WireDog vest.
    • CreativeClam (Etsy) circular patch: I have the 3″ diameter patch with a red stop sign in the centre and red lettering “Do Not Pet” above the stop sign and “Do Not Distract” below the stop sign.  I have this on each side of my WireDog vest.
  • sowinkadesign (Etsy) Norway harness: For days when my girl needs a little extra help around the house, I needed a mobility-style harness that was so comfortable that I could wear it around the house but wouldn’t think I was officially working. This harness was easily the winner! Because it’s designed as a normal walking harness, the chest strap is padded with fleece, which is excellent because that eases any pressure from the strap where a leash would normally attach (except my girl uses this as a counterbalance strap). I have this harness in plain black with a blue jacquard ribbon, and for me, the “circuit chest” measurement was 60-70 cm and the “Measure A” was 45 cm.
  • saxonleatherart (Etsy) custom dragon leather harness: This harness is a literal dream come true. When my girl got my dragon collars from saxonleatherart, she had this wild idea about getting a dragon harness, and saxonleatherart made it a reality!  Complete with scales and wings, it matches both of my dragon collars but is still functional as a Service Dog harness underneath all its beauty!  Funnily enough, I get fewer stares and questions from strangers when I’m in my dragon harness than when I’m in my normal black harness…
  • PongoPetz (Etsy) Full Utility Harness: This harness is actually made for pet dogs, but my girl and I first discovered it through another Service Dog team! Canadian-based PongoPetz is warm and friendly to work with, and this is hands down one of our favourite dog harnesses of all time, especially since it can easily be converted from a “working” harness to an “off duty” harness! My current harness is blue with 1.5″ straps and has plastic buckles.
    • SkyCity mini tactical molle pocket bag: When my girl started looking for a lightweight summer harnesss for me during the summer of 2016, attaching a molle bag to a harness seemed like the best way to go, but finding a bag that wasn’t too big was actually really tricky. We finally stumbled across this excellent pouch that is conveniently 4.3″ x 2.76″ — nice and small!  It was perfect in every way…except that it wasn’t actually molle and needed to slide onto a belt. So the original pouch has now been modified a bit with snaps and elastic straps so that it can easily be attached and detached from my PongoPetz harness.
      • patienceandlove143 custom patch: 1″ x 4″ in size, this patch says “Emergency Information Inside” and has a medical star next to the text, with a caduceus in the center of the star.  The text is red against a black background, and it has a teal border.
  • Outward Hound Kyjen Pal Pack Backpack: This backpack is definitely the most professional-looking Service Dog gear that I own.  I’m joking, of course!  Although I’ve occasionally worked in it when I’ve needed to, this is my “off duty” backpack, and it’s perfect for its job!  Its pockets are just the right size to carry my off duty essentials: emergency information, emergency medication, waste bags, dog tags, and a couple of business cards. There are a few different designs to choose from, and although my signiture colour is blue (aka the monster design), the final choice was between the purple unicorn and the orange owl — the owl won! I wear a size medium, and there’s plenty of room for adjustment both in the chest and in the girth.
    • patienceandlove143 custom patch: 1″ x 4″ in size, this patch says “Emergency Information Inside” and has a medical star next to the text, with a caduceus in the center of the star.  The text and border are yellow against a black background.
  • Bridgeport 8″ guide handle: I got mine in black!  I also have the 12″ handle, but it’s a little too long for what my girl needs.  Depending on what my girl needs, I’ll either be wearing this or one of my paracord pull straps.
  • GreyDogDesigns (Etsy) 12 inch-, 16 inch-, and 21 inch-long paracord pull straps: Although many Service Dog teams that I follow on Instagram use or sell paracord pull straps, the popular designs tended to hurt my girl’s hands, so we struggled to find the right one. Thankfully, these double round braid are super comfortable!  They’re also very easy to hold since they’re thicker than normal paracord pull straps.  I tend to have plain gear so my pull straps are 100% black.
  • WireDog Classic Snap On Bridge Handle: As a team, my girl and I have not used this handle extensively yet, but we like what we’ve seen. It’s not rigid, but it does have a rigid section to hold.  Ours is the 14″ length because I’m a shorter dog and my girl has short arms.
  • LilSomethinSpecial counterbalance handle: This superbly made handle is super comfortable in my girl’s hand thanks to its fleece lining.  Ours is 19″ long in solid black.
  • Guide Dog Users Inc. harness pouch: This small 5″ x 3″ x 1″ black pouch (with a teal “Guide Dog Users Inc.” logo on the front, which I covered with a patch) easily snaps onto a 1″ wide harness.  We saw a guide dog team on instagram using it and realized it was a perfect pouch for carrying the essentials: emergency information, a couple of waste bags, and my dog tags.
    • patienceandlove143 custom patch: This circular patch with a 3″ diameter features a crossed out hand in the center.  Wording across the top arch says “Medical Info Inside,” and wording across the bottom arch says “Service Dog.”  Embroidery is in teal against a black background.
  • patienceandlove143 (Etsy) leash wraps: It’s like my symbol patch, but in the form of a leash wrap!  I got mine in black, red, and white and was able to get a custom length of 5″ to help it fit on my guide handle and/or pull straps more easily.  Its symbols are slightly different from the patch with a stop sign instead of a crossed out camera, but it still gets the same job done!
  • 1.5″ martingale collars: I won’t list all my collars, but my current collection includes saxonleatherart (Etsy; dragon chain martingales), dogsbythebay (Etsy; I also have a 6′ long black leash from them), If It Barks (one of my first collars was by If It Barks, which you can find in my article about martingales), Anomaly Collar Club (Etsy), cody’s creations (Etsy), and Collars by Design (Etsy).
  • Bold Lead Designs leather guide leash: I have the “shorter service dog” length for this leash, and it automatically comes in 1/2″ wide black leather.  It’s been my working leash for almost two years now, and it has definitely been the perfect leash for the job.
  • Bold Lead Designs Brahma guide leashMy girl is very protective of her leather, which means that she was reluctant to work me in my leather guide lead when the weather was poor, even though it was the perfect lead for my job as a service dog.  Luckily, we were able to get the exact same leash but in Brahma, a weatherproof material made to feel and look like leather.  It’s a 1/2″ black lead in the “shorter service dog” length, so it’s the same as my normal working leash but can be used in any weather!
  • Bold Lead Designs 8-by-8 Brahma leashI have the 6′ length for this leash, and it automatically comes in 1/2″ wide black Brahma, the same weatherproof material as my “all weather” guide leash.  With multiple attachments for the clasps, this leash can be configured in all kinds of ways.  It’s great for when my girl needs her hands free, like when she’s pushing a cart at the supermarket.
  • ActiveDogs hands free leash: I got the 7.5″ length, and it came with a black patch/sleeve that says “Service Dog” in white lettering.  My girl uses this a lot on campus because it can help keep her hands free while still maintaining control over me (e.g. in the dining hall), although that control is more out of legal necessity by the ADA than out of training necessity, since my girl doesn’t really use a leash to communicate with me.
  • EpicFido (Etsy) service dog mat: These mats are made with a soft fleece top (mine is in a blue in white pattern, although you can get pretty much anything under the sun) and a wipe-clean black vinyl bottom.  My girl got this for me to settle on while she’s in a science lab, but it’s proven handy in so many other situations, including keeping me from directly lying on the questionable floor of Dartmouth’s dining hall!
  • Walmart G-Force HANDS OFF! luggage tag: Click here for a more in depth review!  My girl transfers ours to my different harnesses.  It’s helpful because she can change it to my left side or my right side depending on where I’m walking in relation to her.
  • collapsible bowl:  I have three of these, actually–one small pink one that either my girl carries or I carry so I can have water with me whenever, and two larger ones (one blue and round, one lime green and square) for travel, instead of having to bring two big, clunky bowls.
  • Nightize S-Biner: Small with the ability to lock–my girl uses it to hold my various rabies tags/microchip tags since I change collars so often (each of my collars has an ID tag though).
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Pictured: Kelsie wearing her blue Cozy Horse pack with her black leather harness. The pack has a path with symbols for “no petting,” “no talking,” and “no starting,” as well as a patch that says “emergency information inside.”  Kelsie is lying in a bed of tulips, and her tail is particularly fluffy.

Tail wags and puppy kisses for now,

Kelsie Iris
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Training Tips: Loose Leash Walking and Heeling


Photo shows Kelsie sitting while holding her teal and black braided leash in her mouth.

Behaving nicely while on a leash is  an incredibly important aspect of my job as a Service Dog.  Good behaviorist is imperative for a Service Dog since my girl only has public access rights with me as long as I’m under control and not “unruly,” which means I have had to learn how to walk calmly on a leash.  Pulling on the leash would make my girl’s chronic fatigue worse, so I must walk with a loose leash and make sure I don’t pull my girl (except when I’m doing a Forward Momentum Pull).  Furthermore, because I sometimes encounter crowds or tight spaces while I’m on the job, I have had to learn to stay close to my girl while I’m working.  Some people would call this position a “Heel,” since I stay right by my girl’s foot while I walk.

Whether you call it heeling or another term, loose leash walking is crucial for Service Dogs and pet dogs alike.  It’s a fundamental aspect of a polite, well-behaved dog.  My girl even has a personal belief that all dogs should be able to be walked just from a person holding the leash with a pinky finger (however, for some dogs, this might not be attainable during their lifetime, but it’s a good goal to have).  However, walking nicely on a leash doesn’t come naturally to most dogs, so training this behaviour can be a slow process.

Before you even start to train loose leash walking or heeling, you’ll want to choose the appropriate equipment for your dog.  If you have a dog that pulls while walking on a leash, you’ll want to opt for a harness rather than a collar.  Tracheal damage can occur from a dog that pulls while wearing a collar, so until your dog learns to walk nicely on a leash, it’s best to walk them in a harness instead.  If your dog is wheezing because they’re pulling so hard, then you definitely shouldn’t be using a collar!  Some dogs can be redirected easily with a head collar, but a strong puller should not be worked in a head collar, since that kind of pulling can cause facial or neck damage (I talk about head collars in this article).  A harness is by far your best bet for keeping your pup safe until they learn how to walk nicely on a leash.

Not all harnesses are created equal, however.  At least until your pup learns how to stop pulling, you’ll probably want to stay clear of back-clipping harnesses.  Harnesses that clip on the dog’s back can actually encourage pulling: think about sled dogs and the harnesses they use!  So although a harness is safer than a collar when teaching your pup to walk nicely, the wrong kind of harness can be unintentionally counter-productive.  Therefore, you’ll most likely want a harness that has a clip in the front over the dog’s chest.  When a dog pulls on a front-clip harness, the pulling is redirected so that the dog is turned to face you.  Pulling = going nowhere.  Pairing training with the effects of this harness  should, over time, teach your pup the tools they need to walk nicely on a leash.

But even within the realm of front-clip harnesses, there’s variation.  Y-front harnesses are probably your better option for front-clip harnesses, especially if your pup is a strong or constant puller.  The Y-front shape better follows the natural shape of a dog’s scapulae and therefore isn’t as likely to cause musculature changes in dogs that pull against these kinds of harnesses.  Straight-front harnesses (like the ever-popular Easy Walk harness) have the potential to cause abnormal muscle development, particularly in dogs that are heavy pullers.  The straight front can restrict the dog’s movement and therefore can lead to muscle changes over time.  In dogs that aren’t frequent pullers, this shouldn’t be too big of an issue, but since even a back-clip on a straight front can cause these musculature changes, I personally think it’s better to avoid straight-front harnesses whenever possible.   However, many guide dog harnesses are designed with a straight front and do not cause severe changes in musculature, so of course, not all straight-front harnesses are “bad.”  At the end of the day, the most important thing is to choose the harness that works best for you and your pup!  And if you’re at all unsure about a harness and its potential effects on your dog, it’s always best to ask your vet or a qualified trainer to get a second opinion.

Kurgo has a variety of harnesses with front clips, but you can also find a number of front-clipping harnesses on Amazon, including the Ruffwear front range harness.  Your local pet store might have some, too!  We have a PongoPetz harness that has both a back and a front clip.  I already knew how to walk nicely when I got my PongoPetz, which means I’ve never been walked with my leash on the front clip, but PongoPetz can also be a good option.

Once you’ve chosen your equipment, you can employ a couple of different methods simultaneously to shape your pup’s loose leash walking. I’m going to call these the “Treat Reward Method” and the “Walkig Reward Method.”

Treat Reward Method

With your pup on a leash, use a treat to lure them into the position you want when you’re walking your dog on a leash.  Reward and repeat, adding a command word (e.g. “Heel”) after several repetitions.  Once your dog is consistently figuring out the position, say the command word and take one step forward while luring your dog forward with a treat.  If your pup stays approximately in the right position, reward and repeat the exercise.  Over time, you will want to build up the number of steps you take, and you will also want to slowly phase out luring so that your pup is offering the behaviour on their own.  This will give your pup a solid foundation for understanding the “correct” place to walk while on a leash.

Walking Reward Method

While walking your pup on a leash, you will stop walking forward whenever your dog pulls or puts tension on the leash.  As soon as your dog takes a step towards to you ease the tension on the leash, use a verbal reward (e.g. “Good!”) and walk forward again.  Here, the walk serves as your dog’s reward, since walking is what your dog wants (hence the pulling).  Repeat this every time your pup pulls — sometimes it will seem very tedious and sometimes you might not get further than a couple of inches at a time, but it’s important to stop walking every time your dog pulls so that your dog learns that pulling gets them nowhere.  Your dog, particularly if they tend to pull strongly or lunge, should be wearing a body harness for the Walking Reward Method, because pulling or lunging against a collar can cause tracheal damage.  A front-clipping harness is ideal, since the harness will turn the dog towards you whenever they pull, which will further reinforce the idea that pulling will not get them what they want.  You may also want to click and reward whenever your dog walks within a certain radius of you, because this will teach your dog a behaviour that they can offer instead of pulling (plus, once your dog understand the concept of heeling through the Treat Reward Method, you can begin asking for a heel and rewarding for that).

I highly recommend using both the Treat Reward Method and the Walking Reward Method while training loose leash walking.  The Treat Reward Method teaches your dog where you want them to be, while the Walking Reward Method teaches your dog what you don’t want them to do: the two methods effectively work in harmony to shape the behaviour you want while decreasing the behaviour you don’t want.  You pup may pick up on one method faster than the other, and that’s okay!  Every dog learns at their own pace, and since loose leash walking is a difficult concept for dogs, either or both methods might take a while to “stick” with your dog.  Just take things slowly and remember that any progress is still progress!

Of course, not everyone is looking for a formal obedience heel, especially if you just have a family pet that you want to be able to walk without your arms getting dislocated.  Feel free to adjust either method to get the heel that works best for you.  When I’m not working, I personally often walk with a little tension in my leash, and that’s okay!  My girl likes a little tension in the leash because it helps pull her along lightly without having me do a formal Forward Momentum Pull when I’m “off duty.”  She still gets the benefits of the pull, while I get to think I’m not working!  However, even if you’re okay with a bit of tension in the leash, it’s important to be able to tell your dog to decrease that tension, and I make sure that I come back closer to my girl as soon as she tells me that I’m pulling too much for her.  It’s important that I have the ability to walk without tension on the leash, even if my girl is okay with it, because she has young nieces and nephews who might want to walk me, and I don’t want to hurt them by pulling to hard and accidentally pulling them over.  That would be bad!  So even though I keep light tension on my leash, I still know how to walk with slack in the leash when I need to.  And, of course, I almost always walk with a loose leash while I’m working — I like to be a model citizen!

Best of luck with teaching your dog how to walk nicely on a leash.  It can be a long, difficult process, but I promise that the end product is infinitely worth it!


Happy trails!
Kelsie Iris

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