Usually when you think of technology, you think of shiny metal machines, circuit boards and blinking lights, and you may even think of robots. What does not come to mind is life, especially soft, fluffy, friendly life. Dogs are not generally considered alongside other technological marvels of the human world, yet they have served important roles to humans since their domestication. Today, one of the most significant jobs dogs perform is that of guide dogs for the blind. While there are several methods for coping with blindness, guide dogs are easily the most successful and well-adapted, providing physical and emotional aid for the blind owners and stable homes and engaging lives for the dogs. The relationship between humans and guide dogs is a pioneer in the technological field because it brings increased benefits to both user and tech not found in traditional inorganic tech.
Dogs and humans have an incredibly long history before dogs were formally considered for aiding the blind. The first breeds developed were big game hunters called sighthounds, like the Saluki, which are excellent for spotting and chasing prey in open fields (AKC). These dogs are generally friendly but very independent (AKC), which can make training difficult as they do not seek human approval for their behavior and will act more on instinct. While beneficial for hunters who want dogs capable of working in the field with little direction, these dogs are not well-adjusted for serving humans in an urban setting, as is required by guide dogs. Continual development of the dog would specialize it into breeds with different skills and different personalities, suitable for different kinds of work beyond hunting in open fields. Varying degrees of energy, loyalty, and senses defined what these dog breeds could accomplish and in what settings. Significantly, in the 1800s, England, Canada and the United States began breeding gundogs for hunting purposes, one of the most common categories being retrievers (Ash). The retrievers were bred to swim out and retrieve game from lakes after they had been shot down, and because of this the dogs had to be athletic, eager, and obedient. As time went on, these breeds became popular companions thanks to those qualities that made them proficient tools for hunters; people admired the friendliness and trainability of these animals. Most significant of the retrievers were Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, which have become two of the most popular dog breeds in the United States. These are also the most common breeds for guide dogs because of their inherent will to interact with and please humans (Ross).
Guide dogs themselves made their first documented appearances in the 1920s in Germany, where they were trained to aid soldiers blinded after the First World War. Widespread recognition of the dogs in the United States would not occur until the early 1930s, though (“Dogs Get New Type of Training…”). An American dog trainer by the name of Dorothy H. Eustis, fascinated by the initial work in Germany, was studying the German trainers when she was contacted by a blind American man named Morris Frank (The Seeing Eye). Frank desired one of the special dogs so that he could be independent, and Eustis was inspired by the project and agreed to train a dog for him. The debut of the dog guiding Frank across a street in New York City proved dogs could be trained to aid blind people, which sparked the founding of the Seeing Eye Organization (The Seeing Eye). Today, they breed, raise, and train Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers as guide dogs, and are the oldest and largest such organization. The establishment of an entire group dedicated to the growth of this new idea shows significant public support instead of fear or reservation. In this way, guide dogs already demonstrate their advantage over other tech in that they were able to overcome doubt and distrust at the same time they were unveiled to American citizens.
Now, the very simplicity of the guide dog’s components are another advantage they have over manufactured tech. Guide dogs are essentially two parts, an organic or living part, and an inorganic or nonliving part. The organic part is the dog itself, which is a self-contained organism that provides maintenance for its own body systems. Aside from the fuel inputs of food and water and the disposal of by-products in the form of feces, dogs require little maintenance to keep them in good working condition. When compared to technology that wears out after too many individual uses, the use of guide dogs does not degrade them over time, and when they are unable to work it is because of natural aging processes, many of which may be delayed by modern veterinary medicine. Dogs who are too old to work are not thrown out like a useless old piece of technology, instead, they are retired and allowed to become family pets (The Seeing Eye). Furthermore, many manufactured technologies are created by the lengthy processes of reshaping compounds and elements, which requires huge amounts of energy and often produces harmful or useless by-products, whereas the manufacturing of more dogs is the natural process of gestation and birth, which mother dogs can perform without massive interference and commitment from humans. Puppies are then raised and trained, which does take significant time and effort, but at any stage of the training the dog may be deemed unfit for guide dog work. Dogs who do not meet the criteria to be a successful guide dog are not discarded either, and are given to good homes or placed in programs for jobs that do suit them (The Seeing Eye). Manufactured technology does not have this same repurposing of unsuitable products; often manufactured tech that is deemed improper for its job is simply thrown away.
Guide dogs do have a manufactured, inorganic component: the harness. All guide dogs are trained to perform their duties while wearing the harness, which allows them to associate the harness with work and the lack of harness with play (Ross). Because of this method of training, the harness is significant to the use of guide dogs, but may be customized to the handler’s preferences. Harness materials vary from leather to nylon and feature a simple strap system that secures around the chest of the dog, a padded section near the dog’s neck, and a large handle that rests on the dog’s back (US Patent number 2006/0037562). The simplicity of the harness, as well as its wide variety of potential materials, make it easily manufactured, and repaired or replaced as the handler sees fit. It is, unfortunately, a technology that is discarded once it is unusable, but choice of materials and care during use can prolong the life of the harness as well.
While the harness is a manufactured item that aids the use of guide dogs, it is the partnership with the dog itself that is the true technology. Using dogs as opposed to canes affords greater safety to the human, as dogs are able to process their environment and react in more complicated ways, such as guiding their human away from moving hazards instead of mere stationary objects. This also links directly to how independent the handler can be, as the dogs allow them to navigate less predictable areas. Dogs also can, at the discretion of the handler, be trained to perform other tasks, such as retrieving objects, and this is something canes cannot do (Ross). Beyond physical actions, dogs offer incredible emotional support to handlers. One study on the incorporation of dogs in schools in various settings declares that the presence of the dogs is positively linked to “growth in the social, emotional, behavioral, and academic domains of educational development” (Anderson and Olsen). Further studies have shown a specific correlation between service dogs and positive social interaction with disabled children (Mader, Hart, and Bergin). Disabilities can be incredibly damaging to social and emotional health, so it is very valuable that guide dogs are a tool for overcoming these setbacks as well as a tool for mobility. A blind economist even analyzed the benefits of her own guide dog, concluding that “for many blind people, potentially the greatest health related improvement in quality of life” is a guide dog (Edwards). This is something incredibly unique to the partnership between dogs and people; no other tech for the blind can provide beneficial social interactions and emotional support alongside greater independence.
Also fascinating, and specific to guide dogs as a technology, is the benefits passed from the human to the tech. Guide dogs are provided excellent care throughout their entire lives, by breeding and training facilities and their actual handlers. These dogs receive consistent food, water, shelter, and exercise, and their lives are full of engaging activities and fulfillment of their instinctual desire to work with people. The breeds as a whole also benefit, as organizations are careful to select parent dogs without family history of cancers, hip disorders, or other common genetic issues, which improves the general health of the breeds (The Seeing Eye). Because the dogs benefit from the partnership as well, guide dogs represent a type of technology where everyone gains, and where the tech is not so much an invention of humans as it is the utilization of natural connection. Humans have managed to integrate guide dogs into our society without major difficulty or backlash, and the dogs are happy to perform their jobs. People love ordinary dogs as it is, and they hold almost human-like positions in our households even as mere pets (Ferguson). Guide dogs, however, take human reverence to an entirely new level. People view guide dogs as wonderful working dogs that make the world a better place, and people greatly respect these dogs as professionals as well. Guide dogs are effortlessly accepted as a part of society with very little complaint; even the best manufactured technology encounters some form of public dissatisfaction, but not guide dogs. They are beloved, and people even treat them with proper etiquette not always given to other dogs. When people see guide dogs at work, they may be drawn to speak with the handler thanks to the dog (Ross), but they do not attempt to pet it or feed it or distract it in other ways, as people often do with ordinary pet dogs. There is a cultural understanding that guide dogs are to be left alone, and yet they are practically worshipped because people are not allowed to run up and pet them! Society’s treatment of guide dogs is a wonderful testimony to the incorporation of other creatures as technology, as it shows technology in the form of pre-existing, natural interactions can be better respected than technology invented by humans.
The concept of utilizing other animals as opposed to humans inventing new solutions is nothing new. One scholarly article from 1962 describes how various animals were being trained to perform monotonous factory tasks, which would allegedly save humans effort and money (“Animals Compete with Humans”). Assuredly there are many ethical issues with this sort of system, including inhumane factory conditions and potential health hazards, and the world has greatly benefitted from strives in robotics that can complete these tasks instead of humans or animals, but this is why guide dogs are the perfect model in proving how other organisms can be used as technology. Guide dogs are a technology where both parties benefit, and our culture is made more respectful and friendly because of it. Dogs are already integrated in numerous other significant jobs, such as the detection of dangerous substances or rescuing lost people, and they are not the only creature with the ability to integrate their natural behaviors into the human world. Prominent in today’s research, algae has become a significant focus of scientists for these reasons; it thrives under the conditions created by major urban centers, and it could be incredibly useful in creating biofuels or alternative food sources (“Microalgae as Biofactories…”). By linking the relationship between humans and algae to the well-established partnership between humans and dogs, the former project will be much easier for the public to understand. Guide dogs are the gateway to understanding how symbiotic relationships are more beneficial to everyone when they are used as technology. Human manufacturing can only solve so many problems, especially when many of the world’s problems today are sparked by massive human interference with the environment, and understanding how humanity can interact healthily with the natural world is a significant step to solve these issues. Guide dogs prove we are able to incorporate this kind of mutualistic technology into our society with little resistance and significant benefits.
Coming back to the present, guide dogs are truly wonderful. They offer independence to the blind, and aid them not just through physical work but through emotional support as well, and their very presence positively affects social behaviors. The dogs themselves are also given enriching lives and continual care. As a technology, they are unconventional, but their relationship with humans definitely shows the benefits of partnerships with animals over ordinary human manufacturing. Though not the most obvious technology, guide dogs are certainly one of the most significant, with all the good they bring to our world and all the respect and adoration they receive in turn.