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The University of North Georgia is trying to build a better harness for guide dogs
A new harness would help relieve pain for the visually impaired
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Rafi, a Syrah golden retriever, walks along with graduate student Tommy Otley on a GAITRite walkway, which records data from Otley's steps, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. The University of North Georgia is using research to improve harnesses for guide dogs in order to cut back on injuries and pain for guide dog users. - photo by Scott Rogers

Researchers in Dahlonega are working to make life a little easier on the visually impaired.

More than 10 years ago, Teresa Conner-Kerr started thinking of ways to help her visually impaired patients at the wound-care clinic where she was working. She noticed a pattern in some of those patients, but wasn’t sure what to do about it at the time.

“I would watch their posture, and I was always just concerned about how they walked,” said Conner-Kerr, now dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions at the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus. “It looked uncomfortable, and I wondered about the pain. A lot of my clients would have pain and their shoulders were in a strange position when they used the guide dogs.”

Those thoughts racked her brain until she got to UNG and met Sue Ann Kalish, associate professor in the department of physical therapy. The two began talking about ways to help the visually impaired and decided to begin researching the strain guide dog users experience by using guide dog harnesses.

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Rafi, a Syrah golden retriever, walks along with graduate student Tommy Otley on a GAITRite walkway, which records data from Otley's steps, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers

“We began to talk about this project and it kind of took on a life of its own,” Conner-Kerr said.

Research began with Kalish’s Syrah golden retriever, Rafi. She walked with him using a normal leash. She then traded that leash out for a harness that a visually impaired person would use and she found a considerable — and uncomfortable — difference.

“It was amazing how rigid the transmission of the forces were,” Kalish said. “He was walking in the correct position. It was just such a different strain with the handle and the harness.”

Kalish, Conner-Kerr and students in the doctor of physical therapy program at UNG are using that knowledge along with more research to find ways to make using a guide dog easier on the visually impaired.

Solutions could include anything from more training for the users or even a new design for the handle attached to the harness. Whatever it is, Kalish said she thinks they’re about two years away from the answers.

It’s all about research right now.

“We are just at the beginning,” Kalish said.

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University of North Georgia graduate student Erin McCarthy walks Rafi, a Syrah golden retriever, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, on a GAITRite walkway that records data of her steps. UNG associate professor Sue Ann Kalish, right, and her team, is using research to improve harnesses for guide dogs in order to cut back on injuries and pain for guide dog users. - photo by Scott Rogers
Although they’re just at the beginning stages, the research has been shown at the National Association of Guide Dog Users’ national conference, where they also gained further data from volunteers who walked on a GAITRite walkway, which Rae Philips, a third-year doctor of physical therapy student at UNG, said is “a rubber mat with pressure sensors embedded into it.”

“We were fortunate enough to have a number of volunteers that were attending the conference,” Philips said. “They walked on the mat for us with their guide dog and again with their cane and we were able to gather some information on different gait characteristics and see the differences there.”

Over the next few years, they plan to research the kinds of joint injuries and pain guide dog users experience in order to find ways to alleviate them. All of the information gathered will give the university what it needs to find solutions for guide dog users.

Kalish said industries have studied the harnesses, but “the interface between the guide dog user and the handle has not been well studied.”

“Our ultimate goal is to increase the quality of life of individuals who use guide dogs and prevent injuries,” Conner-Kerr said. “That’s probably going to be about helping fit a person to use a better-designed harness. But what that better design is, we don’t know.”

Whatever solution ends up coming from the research UNG is doing, Kalish hopes it’s just that: a solution.

“We like to get to the cause of the problem,” Kalish said. “We don’t like to just put Band-Aids on things. We want to get to the root cause.”


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Sue Ann Kalish, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of North Georgia, records data from the footsteps of a subject using a guide dog Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. - photo by Scott Rogers
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