Engineering Students Tackle Dog Mobility

Class designs a custom cart for a dog born without front legs
By Karen B. London PhD, January 2020

Louie is trying out his new custom mobility cart, the result of a project undertaken by first-year engineering students under the guidance of Dr. Katie Kalscheur, the lecturer who teaches the course.

Louie, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever mix who belongs to Pat and Pete Sammataro of Madison, Wisconsin, was born without front legs. Originally, the breeder was planning to euthanize Louie, but after spending some time with another family, he eventually found his forever home with the Sammataros. Though the dog can get around with a crawling and scooting motion, Pat and Pete wanted him to be able to walk further, even going on walks like other dogs do.

They tried using a cart designed for dogs who have lost their front legs, but it didn’t work well for him. Unlike dogs whose legs have been amputated, Louie’s shoulders are lower than his hips. The cart was better suited to a dog with higher shoulders, so it made Louie tip over and even somersault. He needed something different.

The Sammataros presented the problem to a first-year engineering class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after learning that the group was seeking real world problems in the community in need of solutions. (A previous class had designed prosthetic legs for a cat named Mr. Stubbs who had lost them in an accident.) According to Kalscheur, the main purpose of the class is for the students to learn the process of design. There are many steps involved in design, which begins with a need expressed by a client and concludes with a working prototype to solve the problem.

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The cart that Louie is now learning to use has multiple modifications from the one that was not working for him. After removing large sections of the cart, the students added small wheels to stabilize it. Their adjustments allow it to tilt forward to accommodate Louie’s natural posture. The addition of padding and a soft vest for Louis made it more comfortable and greatly enhanced his experience while using the cart.

Several of the students in the class are interested in biomedical engineering and prosthetics, so this project provides great experience on their path to careers in that field. Though the project is an engineering one, it is clear from the video that the students understand that the quality of life and feelings of an individual are serious issues. It is heartening to see how sweet, patient and positive they are with Louie.

It’s a double case of good news that Louie is progressing with the cart and will soon be ready for walks through the neighborhood every day and that first-year engineering students are learning how to design products for dogs (and cats!) that make their lives better.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.