Tag Archives: guide dogs for the blind

A device to help monitor guide dog health

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a device that allows people who are blind to monitor their guide dogs, in order to keep tabs on the health and well-being of their canine companions.

Guide dog and handler

Sean Mealin and Simba, using a traditional guide dog harness and handle. Photo credit: NC State University

“Dogs primarily communicate through their movements and posture, which makes it difficult or impossible for people who are blind to fully understand their dogs’ needs on a moment-to-moment basis,” says David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the new technology. “This challenge is particularly pronounced in guide dogs, who are bred and trained to be outwardly calm and avoid drawing attention to themselves in public.

To address this need, the researchers have developed a suite of technologies that monitor a dog’s breathing and heart rate and share the information with the dog’s handler.

“Our goal is to let guide dog handlers know when their dogs are stressed or anxious,” says Sean Mealin, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of the paper. “This is important because it is widely believed that stress is a significant contributing factor to early retirement of guide dogs and other service animals. The technology may also be able to help handlers detect other health problems, such as symptoms of heat exhaustion.”

The issue is particularly important to Mealin, who is blind and works with his own guide dog, Simba.

The research team had previously developed monitoring technologies that are incorporated into a lightweight harness that can be worn by rescue or service dogs. The trick was to find a way to share that monitoring data with users who are blind – and to do so in a way that allows those users to act on the information.

So, the researchers developed a specialized handle that attaches to a guide dog’s harness.  The handle is equipped with two vibrating motors.

High tech dog harness

This guide-dog harness handle contains electronics that allow users to monitor the breathing and heart rate of their dogs. Photo credit: David Roberts

One motor is embedded in the handle by the handler’s thumb, and vibrates – or beats – in time with the dog’s heart rate. When the dog’s heart rate increases, so does the rate at which the motor beats.

The second motor is embedded in the handle near the handler’s pinky finger, and vibrates in synch with the dog’s breathing. The vibration increases and decreases in intensity, to simulate the dog breathing in and out.

“We’re refreshing the design and plan to do additional testing with guide-dog handlers,” Roberts says. “Our ultimate goal is to provide technology that can help both guide dogs and their people. That won’t be in the immediate future, but we’re optimistic that we’ll get there.”

Source:  NC State University media release

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Thunder Dog – book review

Thunder Dog

Thunder Dog tells the story of Michael Hingson and Roselle, his guide dog.  Michael was working in the World Trade Center’s North Tower on the 78th floor on the morning of September 11, 2001.  The book gets its title from the fact that Roselle was very afraid of thunder and, during the wee hours of September 11th, there had been a thunder storm which woke both dog and handler – with handler providing emotional support.

The book starts with a chapter ‘Goodbye to a Hero’ in which Hingson tells us that Roselle died on June 26, 2011.  This is not entirely surprising – virtually all of the dogs who had involvement in 9/11 have since passed away.  It is, sadly, to be expected.

This book is written in a conversational style, as if Hingson was giving an interview (he did, many in fact, after the 9/11 attacks – television presenter Larry King writes the Foreward to the book).  It makes for very easy reading.

Interspersed with chapters detailing the long walk down from the 78th floor as dog and handler evacuated, Hingson tells us more about his life.  He wasn’t born blind, for example.  He was a premature baby and back when he was born, babies were put into incubators with a very high oxygen environment (it wasn’t until later when many babies ended up surviving, but blind, that doctors became aware of the cause).  Roselle was not Hingson’s first guide dog, either.  And Hingson’s parents encouraged him to explore his world; he even rode a bicycle around his neighborhood without assistance – learning to navigate by echolocation.

But the horrors of that day, and the strong bond between man and dog are what this book is really about.  How Hingson had to rely on Roselle more than ever, whilst remaining calm for her so she could do her job.  And how Roselle offered terrified people emotional support on a day like no other.  Hingson’s recollections of short conversations with firefighters who were climbing up the tower to fight the fire and assist in rescue are most poignant.

Roselle’s legacy lives on in the Roselle’s Dream Foundation which has since been established by Mr Hingson to honor her memory.  Throughout the book, Hingson emphasizes that being blind did not stop him from having a normal life and so the Foundation does its best to support scholarships to enable blind people to live their lives to the fullest.  The Foundation also exists to educate the sighted about blindness.

A book well worth reading.  It spent time on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

Your dog – strategist?

Researcher Juliane Kaminski has published a study which shows that domestic dogs are much more likely to steal food when they think nobody can see them.

Many owners may think ‘so what – I already knew this’ – but Dr Kaminski’s systematic study helps to prove that dogs have the capacity to understand the human’s point of view.

Juliane Kaminski and her dog, Ambula (courtesy of University of Portland)

Juliane Kaminski and her dog, Ambula (courtesy of University of Portland)

The study found that when a human forbids a dog from taking food, dogs are four times more likely to disobey in a dark room than a lit room, suggesting that they understand humans may not be able to see them take the food.

The tests were complex and involved many variables to rule out that dogs were basing their decisions on simple associative rules, for example, that dark means food. 42 female and 42 male dogs took part in the study.

This is the first study to examine if dogs differentiate between different levels of light when they are developing strategies on whether to steal food.

The research is an incremental step in our understanding of dogs’ ability to think and understand which could, in turn, be of use to those who work with dogs, including the police, the blind and those who use gun dogs, as well as those who keep them as pets.

Dr Kaminski’s study has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Source:  University of Portsmouth media statement