Guide dogs and service dogs are wonderful healthcare companions for people who live with a range of disabilities or illnesses from blindness to seizures. They help people navigate their way through the world and alert them if they need to seek medical attention or find a safe spot in the case of a seizure or blood pressure drop.
They do a lot for their owners, but they have needs of their own too. For blind caregivers it's difficult to notice the signs of stress or heat exhaustion in a dog and even for owners whose sight is fine, the signs are not always obvious because guide dogs are bred and trained to remain outwardly calm and to blend in with their surroundings.
Researchers at North Carolina State University wanted to make monitoring a service dog's wellbeing easier for its caretaker, so they invented a harness that monitors the heart rate and breathing of the dog and communicates to the owner when signs of stress are detected. The handler can then remove the dog from the stressful situation, or in the case of heat exhaustion, move them out of the heat and find water.
The harness has a specialized handle that attaches to the health-monitoring harness that is equipped with two vibrating motors. One of the motors is in the handle by the owner's thumb and it vibrates in time with the dog's heart rate so that the handler can quickly detect an increase caused by stress. The other motor is located on the other end of the handle by the owner's pinky finger. That motor vibrates in synch with the dog's respiration, increasing and decreasing in intensity to simulate the in and out breaths.
In tests with blind handlers using simulated data, the users were able to effectively notice the signs of stress from the vibrations.
Repeated stress can lead to the early retirement of guide or service dogs, so having a way to monitor and communicate the wellbeing of those dogs to their handlers means a longer beneficial relationship between the dog and the person it's helping.
The researchers now plan to tweak the design of the handle and do more testing with guide-dog handlers. Lead researcher Sean Mealin, who is himself blind and uses a guide dog, hopes that they'll have this technology ready for people to use in the near future.