“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.

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.”