Just as an aging man might turn to a cane, a walker or a scooter to get around, man's best friend often needs some extra help with mobility as it gets older.

Wheelchairs for dogs have been around for decades, but they're mainly used to help animals recovering debilitating injuries or diseases. They can be big and heavy and awkward, and they often assume the dog has a lot of strength in its front legs, which isn't always the case with senior dogs.

This is the problem Ann-Marie Fleming and a team of researchers from British Columbia Institute of Technology recently set out to solve, attempting to design a lightweight, supportive dog wheelchair that would help Fleming's 13-year-old pug Lily -- and other dogs like her -- overcome their mobility issues.

"She turns 14 tomorrow and she had major back surgery three years ago," Fleming said. "You can visibly see her mobility struggles as she walks."

Lily's not well-suited to a traditional dog wheelchair, Fleming said. It would be too heavy for her and put extra strain on her muscles.

That said, it's important for dogs Lily's age to get regular exercise. Fleming said dogs' muscles can begin to atrophy after just five days of disuse.

"For her, it's uncomfortable to go on walks now," she said of Lily. "But, with a little bit of support, she can fly. That means that we can walk for longer. That means we can go more consistently. That means she doesn't have muscle atrophy."

The drive to build a better mobility device for Lily and other dogs like her came, in part, from the overall mission of Fleming's company, Dog Quality.

"All of our focus is on improving the quality of life for senior dogs," she said. "The more we understood about current options for seniors, the more we realized that none of the existing designs really cater to the needs of senior dogs."

Fleming approached a local representative from the Industrial Research Assistance Program, a federal program that helps support the design of new products.

IRAP put Fleming in touch with BCIT's MAKE+ team, which specializes in designing prototypes and proof-of-concept devices.

Nancy Knaggs is a project leader for the team. She said they reached out to local veterinarians and dog owners to gain insights about dog behaviour and biology, as well as to test some of their designs.

"We went through a number of different iterations," Knaggs said. "Fortunately for us, we have a couple of co-workers who have smaller dogs, so we could at least kind of try things out with them.

She said the testing process was quite successful, with many dogs appearing to be comfortable in the device.

"Some of the people that came in to try the iterations, they were like, 'We want to take this home with us,'" Knaggs said. "I would feel bad sometimes that we couldn't send it home with them, because their dogs seemed to like it."

The final prototype is an aluminum frame with an adjustable fabric harness that connects to it. This means dogs can wear the harness without being connected to the frame -- a potential benefit for dogs that aren't used to wearing harnesses.

The frame can be placed over the dog, so owners don't have to pick their animals up to put them in the device. From there, the straps on the harness can be adjusted to provide more or less support depending on the dog's specific needs.

For now, the frame comes in only one size, which Fleming calls "pug size." The plan is to manufacture a variety of sizes in the future.

"We're still doing more testing," Fleming said. "We will then develop bigger sizes and one smaller size of the device so that we can then address the needs of dogs big and small."

Fleming said she hopes the final product will have a frame made of carbon fibre to minimize its weight.

She's also sensitive to the cost of a device like this. She said she hopes the final version will be "affordable," particularly in comparison to other dog wheelchairs currently on the market.

"Senior dogs are expensive for people because of all the vet bills and care that goes into them," she said. "The last thing we want to do is be a burden with giving them, 'here's an option, but it's too expensive for you.'"

Fleming said she wants to make it easier for people to spend time being active with their senior dogs.

"This stage of life with our dogs, it can be amazing," she said. "It doesn't have to be a sad time. It doesn't have to be a time when you stop doing things with your dog."