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Guide Dogs Are Trained Not to Complain, So This Health Monitor Does It for Them

A new prototype harness keeps track of a service dog’s heart rate and breathing, but it is really necessary?

Being a guide dog is a lot of work. It takes a ton of training and concentration for these animals to safely lead their people through the world. According to Guide Dogs of America, most guide dogs work for somewhere between six and eight years, and a big part of what dictates just how long they work is how stressful their jobs are. Much like humans, dogs that work in loud, busy and overwhelming environments tend to burn out sooner than those whose lives are more serene.


Recently, Sean Mealin, a PhD student and guide dog user from North Carolina State University, developed a special harness that aims to keep track of just how stressed his guide dog is. The system is an early prototype, but its premise is simple: This system will notify the human when their dog is stressed out.

Here's how it works: small sensors are embedded on either the collar or the chest strap that goes onto the dog. Those sensors sit against the dog's skin, and pick up its heart rate and how fast the dog is breathing. That data is then fed, in real time, up to the handle that the person holds onto. The handle sends the message along to the human by vibrating—the region of the handle near the thumb vibrates with each heartbeat, and the region near the pinky vibrates when the dog breathes. Taken together, the user has a constant set of vibrations, indicating how the dog is doing. A faster heartbeat and panting means the dog is stressed.

Right now, the system is still largely theoretical. Mealin has created prototype software to turn data into vibrations in the handle, but he's only used simulated data, not live readings from Simba. On the hardware side, researchers at NC State are trying to perfect a heart monitoring system that works on dogs. They hope to combine the two soon.

The device isn't meant to tell users if their dog is sick or injured. That stuff, Mealin says, people can tell pretty quickly. People who use guide dogs become extremely close with them, and even though they can't see their dogs as well as a sighted person might, they can definitely sense when something is wrong. If his dog Simba is sick, he says, he knows right away.


"Simba and I have been together for two years and we've bonded enough that I can usually tell if something's wrong, if he's sick or having a bad day, it's become obvious to me," he said.

What Mealin was really hoping for was to get a sense for how Simba was feeling in real time, as he moved around. It can be difficult for some blind users to tell when their dog is feeling stressed. Dogs often convey their emotions physically, through things like the position of their ears and tail. And unlike most dogs, who might whimper or pull or bark when they see something that stresses them out, service dogs are trained not to do that.

"As I'm working with Simba we may be in stressful environments, a crowded poster hall or even just going through our usual halls during class changes," Mealin said. "There will be tons of people going every direction. I'd like to understand how stressed out Simba is."

The idea is that over time, these vibrations fade into the background until they start to get faster and become noticeable. (In the paper that Mealin and his team wrote about the system, they also describe a Bluetooth audio feedback with the data, but Mealin says that that might get distracting.) In theory, the buzzing would become a constant reassuring pulse that users only really start to notice when the pace picks up. And when that happens, Mealin says that he might try to find another route, or remove Simba from the stressful situation.


"If he sees construction up ahead, hopefully our technology would be able to tell the handler that Simba thinks there's something wrong up ahead," he said. "That can be factored into safety things, so if Simba sees that there's a dog off the leash up ahead and starts getting stressed out about it, hopefully the handler can get that information in a timely manner and chose not to go down that path."

You can think of this like a quantified self tool for dogs: something that gathers data, and then uses that data to help a person draw conclusions that are in some way helpful. Normally, of course, people collect this kind of data on themselves, but quantified self for dogs isn't unheard of. But like all quantified self products, there are questions about just how useful this kind of data, presented in this way might be.

And like most quantified self products, not everybody who uses a guide dog wants something like this. Penny Reeder, the president of Guide Dog Users, Inc., says that she can usually tell when her dog is stressed out without a vibrating handle. "You're used to listening to your dog," she said. "You do hear the dog breathe."

And as far as catching stressful situations when they occur, Reeder says that she already knows when her dog doesn't like something without hearing its heartbeat. "I understand that the dog's heart rate or respiration would change if every time you were on a certain street and there was a jackhammer on the corner," she said. "Your dog would probably be stressed. But you would also know because your dog wouldn't want to go there!"


Reeder told me that some city dogs do really struggle with the stress. She mentioned a friend of hers who had a dog who was so stressed out by the noise from a certain metro station in DC that one day the dog sat down and quit. "So maybe if my friend had known how stressful it was for the dog, maybe she could have figured out a different metro station," she said. But she also said that sometimes it's not that simple. If a commute involves a certain route, it can be hard to find a new way to go.

Overall, Reeder's biggest question is one that quantified self users have to answer continuously: what am I getting by adding this gadget to my already brimming pile of things to keep track of? "I just think it's unlikely that people would be willing to add another piece of technology to their lives and to the gear that the dog has to wear to get this information that they could probably find out in other ways," she said.

Another image of a prototype model of the dog sensor. Image:Rita Brugarolas, iBionics research group at NC State

Now, just like any other group of people, guide dog users have all sorts of different attitudes towards technology. Some of them might like this constant feedback from their dogs, while others might feel how Reeder does. For his part, Mealin says that he's hoping to improve the device and use it on Simba as he walks around campus.

And future versions of this device might be more appealing to Reeder. Mealin has thought about developing systems that, instead of constantly buzzing with heartbeats and breaths, only alerts the user when an algorithm uses those things to determine that the dog is stressed.

"Any kind of processing that we can take off the owner is good," he said. "One of the primary goals of our lab is to bridge the communication divide between humans and dogs, and that involves translating dog behavior or body language into whatever form is most useful for the individual in question. So if a vibrotactile interface, or a text readout using Google Glass, or whatever, we're interested in what is most convenient for the handler."

But no matter what system he develops in the future, Mealin says he will always have to contend with one dog constant source of elevated heart rates in dogs: squirrels. "I know for a fact that Simba loves squirrels," he said, laughing. "Trying to filter out the false positives from the true positives is definitely ongoing."