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Student Innovators: Kristina Rodgers and Nick Spaulding
Student Innovators: Kristina Rodgers and Nick Spaulding

The scenario is one most dog owners who’ve traveled with their pets in the car have experienced—the driver needs to quickly apply the brakes and the dog or dogs are flung around the car. The situation can be dangerous, deadly even, for pet and owner.

Pet safety harnesses have been around for some time now. Standard design components include a padded chest harness and straps that wrap around the shoulders and torso to fasten at a central point on a dog’s back. The idea is that an owner can thread a seatbelt or lead through a ring on the back of the harness and in case of a sudden stop, the belt will lock just as it would if a person were belted in. Unfortunately, some design elements can render harnesses ineffective.

Portland State University engineering student and owner of two dogs, Kristina Rodgers and her follow PSU engineering student Nick Spaulding decided to apply their engineering knowhow to build a better car safety harness for dogs. In order to pursue their ideas the two submitted a proposal to the Innovation Program during the spring quarter 2012 and were awarded access to PSU resources and $1,000 to investigate their idea and build a prototype. Almost a year later, they have two complete prototypes and they’re ready to take their innovations to the next stage.

“I started thinking about safety harnesses after a friend lost her dog in a car crash,” Rodgers said. “I started doing some research, looking into different products. I found that most of the companies offering the harnesses didn’t provide any engineering specs. After some time, I found two that I thought would be really great. But when they came, I didn’t like the quality.”

“The harnesses out there,” Nick Spaulding added, “aren’t really engineered. They’re not put together very well.”

Spaulding and Rodgers noticed several design elements of the harness they could improved on. One was the shoulder harness that holds the anterior of the dog’s body.

“We looked at the anatomy of dogs,” Rodgers said. “Their shoulders, rib cages, chest cavities. We learned that dogs have a two-point connection between their shoulders and their shoulder sockets. The shoulder brace of most car safety harnesses didn’t support this two-point connection. So if you’re in an accident and your dog’s shoulder is damaged, you could be looking at a $3,000 to $5,000 surgery for your dog.”

Rodgers’ and Spaulding’s solution was to design a better harness that took into account the anatomy of dogs, but also employed principles of engineering to soften the impact of the force of an accident.

“We looked at the way foam densities and other materials could disperse the force of impact,” Rodgers said.

When asked about their experience in the Innovation Program, both Rodgers and Spaulding agreed the resources made available to them during the time had been very helpful.

“I think the Innovation Program has been great,” Rodgers said. “We have a lot of feedback and a lot of guidance from the panel and we were given the leeway to follow our ideas.”

“Dr. Recktenwald has been really helpful to us the whole way through,” Spaulding said. “He’s pointed us in good directions. Told us about people who could help us. He helped us get into labs and gave us great advice at every step.”

Spaulding and Rodgers are now planning on applying for more funding to support their project. They have talked to local pet shop owners who have expressed interest in their dog safety harnesses. And both Rodgers and Spaulding have considered the possibility of entrepreneurship as a path to taking their innovative harness design to market.

“Innovation is finding a solution to an existing problem and bringing that solution to life,” Spaulding said.

“It’s about making improvement,” Rodgers added.

The Innovation Programs aims to encourage student innovation and creativity. Rodgers and Spaulding are two examples of how this program has been successful; their innovative safety harness design may soon secure dogs into seats in cars all over the metro region, helping protect pets and owners from injuries that can occur in car accidents.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted March 20, 2013