Recently, I had a conversation with my friend and fellow researcher, Will Pearson about the amount of semantic information transmitted by a guide dog to its handler through the harness it wears. We wondered if anyone had studied this question (I haven’t found anything in a handful of online searches) and if the subtle movements made by a guide dog that a handler can understand is unique to each individual team or if there is a more generic component to it. Finally, we wondered if these subtleties can be quantified and used in an advanced guide dog training system that would include a far greater number of things that the handler can communicate to the dog and vice versa.
X-celerator and I have been working together for almost a year now. As time has gone on, the tactile vocabulary we use to communicate has expanded greatly. This morning, while on our exercise walk, I started counting bits of information that he communicates to me that the trainers didn’t teach us about.
A properly trained guide dog stops walking when one reaches an obstacle. The handler then “clears his space” by feeling around with their foot and by reaching their hand out to feel for things higher up. Today, I noticed that when X-celerator stops at a crack in the sidewalk, he points to it with his nose and, as a consequence, his harness points upward a bit. I noticed that he does this consistently on curbs, broken sidewalk bits and other things I might trip over.
Conversely, when X-celerator wants to indicate that I’m about to walk into a head high obstacle he stops and points his nose upward, thus lowering the handle of the harness. Throughout our walk through the neighborhood, he did this same thing every time a tree branch or bush hung out over the sidewalk.
No one taught us that we could feel the handle move to indicate where an obstacle obstructed our path. X-celerator, sometime in the past year, developed this behavior and I realized today that I had already intuited his meaning and acted accordingly before I grew conscious that this action joined our tactile vocabulary.
Recently, I walked with a friend of mine who trains dogs for a living. He does obedience training and had no experience with guide dogs prior to our walk together. He asked me how I could tell where to stop for a curb. I said that X-celerator stops and I stop when he stops. My friend then informed me that the stop the dog makes can hardly be detected visually, that the stopping process is not sudden but, rather, a very subtle slow down at the end of each block. I remembered that, when the dog and I were new to each other that stops and starts were far more sudden. Thus, a slowing “glide” approaching a stop has entered our vocabulary and works very well as a technique.
I notice all sorts of other things through the harness that I can’t quite quantify yet but will, through observation, try to define, write down and report in BC new things I learn if I can show a consistent pattern. I can usually tell when the dog wants to tell me that he is confused and, through very subtle actions, is asking, “Is this a good idea?” I can’t quite describe the action yet but I’ll watch out for it and see if he does something consistent in that case. I can easily tell when he feels anxiety but, again, I can’t quite describe exactly what he does to tell me. I also know when he feels my anxiety and will try to quantify the action he takes to say so.
A tactile vocabulary across species is pretty interesting. I wonder what Chomsky would say about such?
If you have any experience with a tactile method of communicating with your guide dog, I’d be happy to hear your stories. Maybe we can find out consistent patterns over a variety of dog and handler teams to see if, somehow, a similar vocabulary develops during the relationship between human and service animal.
To the person who posted the comment asking how I dealt with the boredom on a non-stop flight from New Delhi to Newark, I have an easy answer – sleeping pills and Bose noise reduction headphones. Ambien works well and the headphones are a must for long haul travel.