Dogs learn new tech
I have to admit that with retirement has come a certain nonchalance when it comes to my therapy dogs. Maybe after bringing them to school with me almost every day for the past 16 years or so, I am due for a break.
Although well worth the effort, it was something of a strain to be responsible for a dog interacting with 400-plus children, who are by definition unpredictable.
So it’s been nice to just be lazy. Blarney, my younger corgi, and Snuffleupagus, my beloved bozo basset, have pretty much been just pets these past few months. I occasionally bring them to school when I volunteer— and I admit to pangs of guilt when I see how happy my dogs are to be among kids again— but mostly they, like me, have become couch potatoes.
However, while I may personally be taking a break, I have not lost any of my interest in the work of service and therapy dogs in our ever evolving world. And I’ve read about some developments in both the role of the service dog and the role of technology that I find fascinating. I hope you will, too.
The first development is such an obvious match, I should have seen it coming, but truth be told, I didn’t. The incorporation of a GPS with the work of a guide dog is such a naturally beneficial way to make life easier for those who are visually impaired. Of course, the state-of-the-art GPS used in this application is somewhat more sophisticated than the one sitting in the glove box of my car.
In 2007, an organization called Leader Dogs for the Blind, based in Rochester Hills, Mich., teamed up with a French technology company called Kapsys, and developed a voice activated GPS.
The latest edition of this, Kapten Mobility, announces to the visually impaired pedestrian the names of streets, addresses of the nearest restaurants, hotels and places of business, and the addresses of the nearest building, guiding the person through any area of town in just about any part of the world. Of course, what Kapstan Mobility can’t do is know when the light has changed, navigate around people or obstacles on the sidewalk, or spot oncoming traffic, which is where the service dog comes in. I find it so amazing that between the GPS and the guide dog, the world, even the unfamiliar world, has suddenly become so much more accessible to those who can’t see it.
Then there’s been a ground-breaking development in the training of dogs that help those afflicted with debilitating seizures. You may already be aware that there are now service dogs who alert people with epilepsy or other disorders that they are about to have a seizure. This alert gives the person time to stop whatever they are doing and take precautions to insure they won’t be physically injured. Most seizure dogs are also trained to fetch medicine and emergency phones, and trigger Life Alert buttons.
In addition to all this, an organization called Can Do Canines trained a black Labrador retriever named Brody to activate the vagus nerve stimulator (VNS), which is implanted under the skin near his owner’s collarbone. The VNS, when activated, can send an electrical impulse to the brain that will end the seizure.
Unfortunately, we mere humans can’t activate the VNS in time, because we don’t pick up on the subtle signs of oncoming seizures. Brody has a VNS magnet attached to his collar. When he senses a seizure is about to happen, he signals his owner to lie down, then lies on top of her with the magnet on his collar close enough to the implant to activate it. Voila! Seizure is avoided. Isn’t that amazing?
Then there are diabetic alert dogs, which those in the biz refer to as DADs. Not only does a DAD worth his kibble sense when his owner is about to have a diabetic emergency, these dogs are trained to know whether the impending crisis will be caused by sugar levels that are too high or too low.
After alerting his owner of the problem, the dog then bumps her hand up if sugar levels are high or down if sugar levels are low. And he does that well before dangerous changes in blood sugar levels register on a blood glucose meter.
Of the many things that struck me as remarkable about the work of seizure alert dogs and DADs, one was that they are never, ever off duty. Assistance dogs in other roles — guide dogs or wheelchair assistance dogs for example — at least can kick back and relax once they have their owners safely tucked into bed or relaxing in front of the TV. But alert dogs have to be vigilant every minute, 24/7. And they do it all for love and hot dogs.
Before I close, I want to include autism service dogs in this column. These dogs aren’t particularly flashy. They don’t need to carry electronic devices or respond to complicated commands. They do need to sit down, hard and fast, if the child to whom they are tethered tries to run into traffic or another dangerous place. And they have to remain calm and affectionate even in the midst of some world class meltdowns. For children with autism, and for their families, these dogs are everyday heroes.
An autistic child may not know how to make friends, but his service dog doesn’t know that. He can give the child affection, attention, warmth and companionship in a way that meets that child’s needs and in a manner that we humans haven’t successfully figured out yet.
They, too, are amazing, but mostly because they’re just doing what dogs do best.
The information for this column has been gleaned from two articles: “A New Age for Assistance Dogs” by Diana Lavendure in the July issue of Dog Fancy magazine, and “Diabetic Alert Dogs” by Mardi Richmond in the May 2013 issue of Whole Dog Journal.
I hope you enjoyed learning about these astounding animals as much as I did. My dogs work little miracles in my life every day, as do yours, probably. It’s heartwarming to hear of the bigger miracles our four-pawed friends can help make for others.
Nancy Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.