Scientists roll out innovative health-tracking device for guide dogs

NC State researchers are developing a handle for guide dogs that monitors heart rate and breathing.--Courtesy of NC State University

Wearable devices are all the rage these days, with animal health companies rolling out products that allow owners to monitor their dog's well-being. Now researchers are exploring a different application of the technology, developing a device that lets people who are blind keep tabs on their guide dog's health.

Dogs communicate mostly through movements and posture, which presents a problem for individuals who can't see. People who are blind may have even more trouble keeping track of guide dogs' health and stress levels, as the animals are trained to be calm and avoid drawing attention to themselves in public, said David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper on the new technology, in a statement.

To address this problem, scientists at NC State created a specialized handle that attaches to a guide dog's harness and includes two vibrating motors. One motor is embedded in the handle by a user's thumb and vibrates in time with the dog's heart rate. Another motor sits in the handle near the user's pinky finger and pulses in synch with the animal's breathing, increasing and decreasing in intensity to mimic a dog's actual breath. "We wanted to use electronic signals that intuitively make sense for the dog handlers," Roberts said.

NC State scientists have already tested a prototype handle using simulated heart rate and respiratory data, and found that the device could accurately convey information to users. The team plans to refresh the device's design and do additional testing with guide-dog handlers.

"Our ultimate goal is to provide technology that can help both guide dogs and their people," Roberts said in a statement. "That won't be in the immediate future, but we're optimistic that we'll get there."

Dog wearables are already making a splash in the animal health market, with companies including Intersections ($INTX), Kansas City-based FitBark and WhistleGPS rolling out related devices. Intersections' Voyce device sells for $299 plus a $9.95-per-month membership fee, and monitors vital signs such as heart rate and respiratory rate. The product also tracks how much activity and sleep dogs who wear it are getting, and allows owners to track changes in their dog's wellness through an accompanying mobile app.

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