Friday, November 30, 2012

FASTER - An Orthopedic Harness?

I have been preparing this article for quite a while. But there has always been something new I learned and wanted to add, and before I knew it, three years went by like nothing.

Many of you have been asking me about my experience with the Zero DC harnesses, of the model named FASTER and I have promised you to write in more detail about them, so let me tell you the entire story of my long experience and research we´ve made on these harnesses.

Four seasons ago, we got to a point in the middle of a training season, when a lot of our dogs got harness rubs under their armpits. Generally this is something that can occasionally happen to any very hard working dog, even if wearing a high quality harness. It isn´t so much about the quality of harness in that point, but more less about the type (model) of harness and how the size fits. There are dogs that are more prone to harness rubs than other dogs, for various reasons, from short coat, crabbing or pulling to the side, running too often on a certain side of the line, or due to the way their chests and breast cages are built.

In our case, it was simply too many dogs and the neoprene harness rub protection t-shirts, despite how wonderfully they are working, were becoming an expensive and time consuming solution.

Luckily, as I started searching other solutions, I came across the FASTER from Zero DC. We got one of each size to try out and soon enough, we found ourselves ordering more. We´ve been using them ever since! 

We saw effects immediately. The harness rubs caused by other harnesses had time to heal without any parts of the harness touching those effected areas. That was a significant effect nr.1.
The more dogs wore them also in the seasons to come, the more dogs were prevented from getting rubbed under the armpits. 
We run generally around 30 dogs in the main string each year and each dog runs between 3-4000km between September and March, depending on what races we are preparing for. From time to time, the odd dog may get a harness rub very seldom, but I still admit it happens. Not long ago, I wondered why is that, and I started to focus on that. Soon I realized, that these cases were of dogs with a bit different builts (chest and fronts) and that their rubbing was strictly connected to a sizing problem. One size bigger harness usually does the trick for us. But what is great about Zero DC is also the fact, that they offer custom sizing for no additional cost, so even differently built dogs who have issues to fit in many different harness, can have their own, specially addressing their individual structure.

The reason why FASTER does not rub and prevents this nasty and painful injury, lays in it´s unique, patented anatomy. As you can see on the pictures, a certain bow is attached to the harness collar and to the breast part. From this "bow", the harness continues with a strap that goes all the way to the root of the tail. Not only does the bow prevent the harness from touching the armpit, but the angle in which rest of the harness is connected to the bow supports this function too.

When a full season of running in the FASTER harness passed, we noticed the dogs developed a whole better and stronger muscles along their backs. The reason for this is very simple. This unique model of harness has an open back, and the open back allows the dog to build the back muscles, because he or she has more free movement. 

This whole fact leads to another important factor:

Because while the dog has a more free movement in the harness and chance to develop better muscles that support the back, the back is more protected against injuries. But there is even more to it. When there are no straps binding the dog, constantly pushing on his back for hours and hours of work each day for several months in a row, the likeliness of pain and injuries is again a lot smaller.

Now, let´s have a look at a few results of my study, as I have made notes of my observations each year, during these past four seasons.

Every year, just before the training season starts, we make overall check ups of the dogs´ condition. We check for discomfort, for flexibility, balance, etc. We then make massages, simple stretching and balance exercises, we try to smooth out whatever issues there might be and we take notes. Each month, during one of the recovery days we go over the team again and we compare the notes.

The dogs are just like human athletes, each individual has his or her own issues and over the years we learned a lot about their bodies, strengths and weaknesses and that what bothers one dog more might be no biggie for another one and vice-versa. Some dogs tended to needing more help through back massages than others for example, and the adjustments we´d make each month or after an extra hard run would always bring relief, but some issues kept re-occuring anyway. We took it that some of the dogs simply will have some minor issues for the rest of their life.

Amazingly enough, after switching entirely to FASTERs, after three years we noticed that the issues are disappearing. I compared my notes to double check this September and found out none of the "chronical" issues of some of the dogs were there!

One particular dog who´s performance was effected by back issues was my main leader Galena. I used to work on her back each time after a few back to back runs continuously and her speed always increased after the "session".
I worried she might get worse as age proceeds. It wasn´t an issue that would be painful, but it was there, lowering her great full potential, although she still performed beautifully. And suddenly, after three years of running in FASTER, her issue is gone.

About a week ago, my vet and friend Cathrine called me and I asked between the talk, how did the FASTER I gave her to try out on one of her dogs, work. She said that amazingly, a dog that had issues with his feet and not running properly, started to work fluently once switched to the FASTER. 

I gave it a deeper thought, wondering about the connection. It reminded me immediately of a documentary about horse back riding I once saw. There was a study made on how the backs of horses are damaged from working under saddle and rider and how it leads to neurological issues, inflammations and leg and hoof problems. That was something that triggered my interest. So many horses have issues with legs and hooves. So many of them are treated for these symptoms, but majority of the problems come from the back! Similar as with people - we get terrible headaches, doctors check us from head to toes, they do CTs of our brains, we eat pain meds, until someone finally sends us to their chiropractor and we come back as new, because it was our back that got blocked or injured, shooting pain into other parts of our bodies.

My lead dog Galena´s and my friend dog´s stories led me to thinking that FASTER has yet another great function and I started to call it the orthopedic harness. I am more and more convinced, that it could actually help a lot of dogs (and not only sled dogs) who suffer from some sort of mobility, coordination and back issues. It helped so many of mine and others´s dogs already.

One last thing I observed over the years and even discussed with a few experienced, top mushers, is that the whole anatomy and angle of the harness actually allows the dog to fully lean into he harness in a natural position, with less pressure on the hips, promoting a lot more the natural pulling style with head and front of the dog leaning down and forward, enabling the dog to fully reach out and track with his front legs, while the rest of the body is relaxed, with no pressure put on any points along the way. This leads to an overall more effective performance, generally allowing higher speed, thus lowering tiredness and shortening recovery time. 

What´s the conclusion? Obviously, I am happy with these harnesses, very much. I believed they had a great purpose in preventing harness rub injuries and over the time learned that there are yet a lot more benefits. I did not write this article to simply promote a product of a company my team has been sponsored by. That has never been my way. I do work with equipment I believe in and companies I trust but most importantly, equipment that helps my dogs to enjoy their sled dog work and in this case, help me improve their health and allow me provide the best possible dog care I can.

I know there is no perfect harness on the market and that there is no harness that fits perfectly to every single dog in the entire world, and my intention isn´t to convince anyone that FASTER is that kind of harness. I am just openly sharing my experience and the results of the little study we made. And if this will help anyone to solve similar issues of their dog, this article served it´s purpose well.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the Zero DC FASTER harness.

Happy Trails!

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