Guide Dog Harness Design

Improving the Lives of People and Dogs Alike

CLIENT: Pilot Dogs

INDUSTRY: Consumer

SERVICES: Soft Goods, Design, Engineering, Prototyping,

Pilot Dogs is a nonprofit organization committed to helping the blind and visually impaired live with greater independence, mobility, safety, and confidence by providing expertly trained guide dogs. The harnesses included with each guide dog have changed only slightly since the inception of the company in 1950. Pilot Dogs partnered with Priority Designs to design a new harness with increased ease of use and comfort for both the users and the dogs.


As the project commenced, the Priority Designs team of designers and engineers worked closely with Pilot Dogs to identify areas of improvement on the existing harness. We spoke to trainers, students, and long-time users to understand the frustrations and difficulties experienced during use.

Users found the wrought iron handle heavy and uncomfortable for the dogs when idle. Due to the rudimentary clasp mechanism used to attach the handle to the harness, disconnecting and reattaching the handle was extremely difficult for the visually impaired users. Putting the harness on the dogs was also challenging, so Pilot Dogs challenged the team to simplify the construction of straps and buckles and develop a more modern, and user-friendly design.

The team proposed a few possible development paths with different features and price points. Should the handle attachment mechanism be simple or incorporate magnets? Should the handle grip be updated to a molded design and contoured to match the human hand or retain the time-tested leather style?  Should synthetic materials be used in place of leather?  The merits of each direction were discussed, and a direction providing the most benefit to the end users was chosen.

Handle Connection Engineering

The difficulty and effort required to remove and reattach the handle was identified as a primary source of frustration for users, so the team focused on developing a new connection system. Determining what characteristics yielded a satisfying experience was accomplished through rapid ideation and the quick development of a variety of physical concepts utilizing 3D printing. By experiencing the tactile qualities of each design, characteristics like strong magnetic alignment assistance and a loud “click” at engagement were identified as valuable enhancements for the visually impaired users. The final design incorporated the best attributes of over 30 unique mechanisms.

After the function of the connection mechanism was refined, a number of modifications were made to enhance the users’ experience. Contrasting white-and-red coloring was applied to aid in locating the connection system and the handle end-fitting was carefully contoured to guide the users’ thumb to the release button. Braille was added on one side of the handle and oppositely-polarized magnetic elements were used to help avoid incorrect orientation at reattachment.

The team considered numerous high-performance materials to replace the heavy, iron handle, and performed brutal, destructive testing to ensure that neither strength nor durability were compromised. A lightweight but virtually indestructible thermoplastic was selected, and a bespoke heating apparatus was developed to transform the raw material into the handle shape.

Leather Patterning and Sizing

Although the team was given a lot of freedom in redesigning the harness, Pilot Dogs had a few specific requests. They wanted to retain the strap orientation of the current harness to avoid having to change their training process. They also wanted to maintain their existing manufacturing relationship with the Amish craftsman who hand-made every harness currently in use.  The team made sure to consider these requests throughout the design and development process.

To calibrate our design senses, the team examined related products, including competitors’ harnesses. The team also sought to understand the variation in sizing and shape for the different breeds used as guide dogs. With this information, the team quickly moved from concept to construction and provided Pilot Dogs a physical prototype to evaluate in the field.

After incorporating a few modifications based on user feedback, the team arrived at a highly functional design that was ready to review with the craftsman. The Pilot Dogs team hand-delivered the prototype as modern communication and delivery methods are incompatible with the Amish way of life.

With a few minor changes, the craftsman was satisfied, and the design was finalized. A variety of sizes were then derived from the master design, and the team developed templates to ensure consistency despite the old-fashioned manufacturing process.

Final Design

The final design is a modernized and user-friendly reimagination of the rugged but cumbersome original harness. The handle now easily attaches to the harness and locks in place with an assuring click. The handle is released with the press of an easy-to-find button, and accidental detachment was made to be virtually impossible with robust locking features. The user can easily secure the belly strap simply by bringing the two Fidlock buckle halves close to each other, and decoupling the belly strap requires only pulling a tab. In addition to being easier to use, the new harness is expertly contoured to provide a form-fitting, modern look while eliminating pressure points and improving comfort for dogs of all sizes.

Priority Designs leveraged the skill, knowledge, and experience of our cross-disciplinary team to improve the lives of the visually impaired and their furry helpers. The creativity, hard work, and dedication of the team resulted in a classic looking harness with high tech performance that delivers on Pilot Dogs’ mission to empower those in need to navigate the world with greater independence, safety, and dignity.

Our prototype shop produces the handle connection system and handle, while the leather harness is still hand-crafted by the original Amish craftsman. We’ve built dozens of them so far and look forward to providing more.

The harnesses are loved by trainers and students alike- the magnetic dock especially has improved user experience.

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