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New Tricks For Dogs

With a $300 budget and abundant creativity, freshman engineering students have created two clever products that have clients smiling and tails wagging at the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS).

The products stem from an innovative freshman design course at the College of Engineering that puts students to work on real-world design challenges. Last fall, students teamed up with WAGS to find solutions to two daily-life problems clients face.

The challenges: to create a device that would help pet owners with limited mobility give their service dogs some exercise and to re-design a pet harness that gives clients enhanced balance.

This is low-budget, high-creativity design. Students developed a safe and compact "tennis ball launcher" that can be mounted on a wheelchair and powered by the chair's batteries.

The second group used technology from downhill ski braces to build a more supportive harness for a client who has multiple sclerosis.

Students with tennis ball launcher

Freshmen engineering students demonstrate the tennis ball launcher they designed. The device can be mounted on a wheelchair to help pet owners with limited mobility give their dogs some exercise. (large image)

Madison resident Russell Moore says the new harness is working beautifully, and he's getting his service dog, a golden retriever mix named Ike, adjusted to the new device. Moore says his old harness for Ike was cumbersome and offered little balance support for walking.

"Before, I couldn't really look at people around me when I was walking," he says. "It took all of my concentration just to stay upright. But the new device helps me look around at people rather than the ground."

The harness is fashioned with quick-release snaps like those found on downhill skis, helping with Moore's limited finger dexterity. It also has a gear shift-like adjustable handle fastened to the harness, which allows him to use Ike for support and help regain footing if he falls.

"I really depend on Ike for all sorts of things," Moore says. "This new brace is like having a portable hand rail."

Sarah Patzer, training coordinator at WAGS, says the Janesville- and Madison-based organization custom-trains and places service dogs to assist people with mobility impairments. It relies heavily on volunteer support, and related equipment is often expensive and scarce. Patzer says she hopes the College of Engineering class can be a continued source of design ideas for WAGS.

Mechanical engineer Patrick V. Farrell, of the course's teaching team, says the WAGS challenges fit the class's educational goals perfectly. Faculty look for community projects that can be completed in a semester, have no single obvious solution, are inexpensive and require student-client interaction.

"The technology will get more difficult for students, but the fundamental process of design is all right there," he says. The transition from concept to blueprint to production hits every major point of product development, including patent searches, he says. The design course was created in 1994 with financial support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency. It helps bridge the gap between engineering's theory-packed first-year curriculum and the tangible rewards of the field.

Katie Emery, an engineering student in the ball-thrower project, found it challenging to filter months of brainstorming into a final tangible product. "It could be frustrating for us as freshmen, since we had limited knowledge, money and time," she says.

But even with these limitations, the students brought a professional polish to their project. Their semester-end presentation included a multi-media show with computer graphics, a video and a demonstration that sent tennis balls arcing into the auditorium crowd.

"I had never done a hands-on engineering project like this before, and it really helped me focus my major," adds Emery. "It's like a little prelude of what's to come."

The tennis-ball launcher will be featured at the college's Engineering EXPO, April 18-20, before it is donated to WAGS.

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