A Guide Dog's Bell

Here is another paper which I wrote for my Masters in Anthrozoology and thought you guys might find interesting. Tell me what your thoughts are on this topic in the comments!

 

The independence given to a visually impaired individual by their guide dog for the blind (also known as seeing eye dog; henceforth “guide dog”) can seem to slip away once the guide dog walks off-leash. Not knowing where their dog is at any given moment, as sighted humans can, puts them and their guide dog in dangerous and vulnerable situations. Therefore, it is common practice to attach a small bell to a guide dog’s collar in order to help visually impaired individuals locate their dog (Kohl, 2010; Küch, 2015). After six years as a guide dog trainer, I have recognised that the bell is not merely practical. The symbolism, history and identity of the visually impaired human, guide dog and bell respectively, as well as together, is complex. This paper will address these points, in addition to potential welfare concerns and alternatives to bells. Three audio recordings (references within text) accompany these observations.

 

Most societies are dominated by a hegemony of vision (Levin, 1993; see also Edwards, 2008; Saerberg, 2010). To aid visually impaired individuals, guide dogs have been officially trained since 1916 (Berentzen, 2016) and exist in some form since as early as 1393 (Kern, 1922). With or without guide dogs, visually impaired people rely more on hearing (Jacobson, 1993; Halko, et al., 2014) than sighted humans might. This reliance on acoustic surroundings affects how they experience their acoustemology. An acoustemology can be understood as acoustic knowledge (Feld and Basso, 1996) or way of being in a sonic environment (Friedner and Helmreich, 2012) and joins the words  “acoustic” and “epistemology” (Rice, 2015). A bell attached to a guide dog’s collar is a part of the daily acoustemology of the guide dogs and their handlers.

 

All three audio recordings were recorded with a Samsung S8, using the “Voice Recorder” App, on the same stretch of concrete road with about one minute between recordings and the Samsung was held around a meter above the bell. Human-created sounds, also known as anthrophony (Krause, 2012; see also Dumyahn and Pijanowski, 2011; Pijanowski, et al., 2011),  such as traffic and planes affect the sound of the bell and were not overly present while recording.

 

In the first recording (https://soundcloud.com/user-483538233/guide-dog-with-bell-on-leash) the bell is quite loud, as it is a larger variety and my dog is walking next to me on a one-meter long leash. The second audio sample demonstrates the silence without the bell (https://soundcloud.com/user-483538233/without). Mainly my steps, the breeze gliding across my Samsung’s microphone and anthrophony is audible. Off-leash movement was also recorded (https://soundcloud.com/user-483538233/freilauf). My dog stays close to me, yet it is possible to hear how the bell alerts to changes in distance and location. Figure 1 (created with “Noise Capture”) shows the frequencies of the bell in the first recording. To clarify, a frequency is “(…) the number of vibrations per second of the air in which the sound is propagating and it is measured in Hertz (Hz)” (Brouček, 2014, p. 111).
        

Figure 1: Frequencies of the first recording (linked in above text).

 

Hearing ranges amongst species often differ significantly (Heffner and Heffner, 2007), which Figure 2 shows by displaying the differences in human and dog hearing frequencies. My Samsung and the Apps used were of relatively poor quality and the sound of the bell was not isolated, leaving Figure 1 rather inaccurate. Nonetheless, Figure 1 shows that the bell stayed between 100 Hz and 16 kHz (16,000 Hz), which is within the range of human and dog hearing, as shown in Figure 2.

 

Figure 2: “Comparing Human & Dog Hearing Frequencies” (Miklosi, 2018, p. 57)

 

The sound of the bell, the use of echolocation (Stroffregen and Pittenger, 1995; Hull, 2016), which is similar to that of bats and dolphins (Thomas, et al., 2004), and other auditory cues and reflections (Saerberg, 2010) help visually impaired individuals “(…) identify and localize objects [a guide dog wearing a bell], to maintain orientation, to walk in a straight line, to avoid possible hazards and to cross streets” (Papadopoulos, et al, 2012, p. 170). This “blind style of perception”, (Saerberg, 2010, p. 371), demands highly active listening – not merely hearing (Gibson, 1966). Some sounds are heard better by certain individuals, due to the physical characteristics of the sound, as well as its meaning and symbolism to the human who heard it (Papadopoulos, et al., 2012; see also Hirsh & Watson, 1996). This causes each listener in a given environment to experience a sound differently (Truax, 1984).

 

Hull (2016) wrote about hearing church bells as a visually impaired individual. The sighted openly pitied him for not seeing the beautiful church. Yet he, in turn, knew that they were most likely not appreciating the church bells, which filled the air with vibration: “(…) the very air I was breathing was bell-shaped” (Hull, 2016, p. 172). Both visually impaired and sighted humans were at this church, yet the bells seemed to have a much larger impact on Hull, a visually impaired man. The bells moved him: “I was flooded with joy, and repeated again and again in my heart, ‘Yes, I hear you, dear bells, I hear you” (Hull, 2016, p. 172). While church bells naturally hold religious and other symbolic meaning for humans, Hull’s experience is comparable to someone’s relationship with their guide dog’s bell. Passersby may pity a visually impaired individual for not seeing their dog and their environment, yet the guide dog owner may be having a unique experience hearing the bell.

 

Shepherds and guide dog handlers both lead complex relationships with bells. In both cases, bells do not necessarily serve a solely practical purpose (Alibhai, 2008; Panopoulos, 2003). The bell can become:

“(…) A well-known motif or a meaningful conversation between friends. Bells allow (…) information about the movement of their animals (…) without having to see them.” (Panopoulos, 2003, p. 643).

The bell can be soothing – similar to the chatter of a companion. It helps them feel less alone and sound draws the attention of others to them (Krause, 2012). Visually impaired mothers, for example, often attach bells to their baby’s shoes (Kent, 2002). Using bells as a way to locate and navigate is also common amongst the sighted. Historically, travelers oriented themselves based on the bells they heard coming from surrounding towns (Corbin, 1998).

 

In the past, a town’s inhabitants formed a strong sense of identity around their community’s church bell (Corbin, 1998). Likewise, a bell can affect the personal, collective and social identities (Sanders, 2000; Rainio, 2012; Corbin, 1998) of both visually impaired individuals and their guide dogs. Self-defining situations are supported acoustically (Rainio, 2006), because the bell is “(…) supporting or constructing their identities, and making their appearance more impressive: audible and discernible” (Rainio, 2012, p. 374). Furthermore, a guide dog’s bell influences how they represent guide dogs and the visually impaired community (also known as collective identity; Sanders, 2000).

 

Some visually impaired individuals may not want passersby to stare more than they already do at a guide dog. They know that, while some humans admire guide dog-teams, others perceive the bell, and therefore the guide dog-team, to be disrupting civility with what is perceived as noise (Feld, 2014; Corbin, 1998). Historically, bells were worn by “fools and outcasts” (Feld, 2014, p. 130), which is sometimes how the disabled are perceived and treated (Mahoney, 2015; see also Sanders, 2000; Berentzen, 2016; Taylor, 2017). Antipathetic attention received due to their disability is intensified by the sound of a bell, drawing more attention and disturbing a perhaps otherwise peaceful soundscape (Corbin, 1998). A soundscape can be defined as “(…) the relationship between a landscape and the composition of its sound” (Pijanowski et al., 2011, p. 203; see also Schafer, 1994; Schafer, 1969). Whether a bell is considered sound or noise is subjective (Brouček, 2014) and influenced by the upbringing and lifestyle (Corbin, 1998) of the listener.

 

On the other hand, the bell could initiate “mutual openness” (Goffman, 1963; see also Sanders, 1990). Dogs can often act as an “ice-breaker” (Serpell, 1986, p. 73; Hurn, 2012; Kulick, 2017) and the addition of a bell strengthens this “ice-breaker-effect” between sighted and visually disabled humans when someone asks about the bell’s purpose. Similarly, humans with positive associations with bells may perceive a guide dog’s bell empathetically. This is the case in Germany, where I live and train guide dogs, due to an ancient practical and poetic relationship with bells (Corbin, 1998). Works from Schiller (1799) and Goethe demonstrate Germany’s appreciation for bells (see also; Corbin, 1998). My German grandmother is able to recite “Das Lied von der Glocke” (Schiller, 1799), roughly translated by myself as meaning: “The Song of the Bell”, even 70 years after she learned it in school. So the bell is usually perceived positively in Germany, which benefits the visually impaired who live here and their relationship with their dog.

 

Historically, bell-ringers were given an important status, because bells control the ritual and time of labor (Feld, 2014, p. 129) and may be older than recorded history (Rossing, 1984). They played an integral role in human societies (Feld, 2014; Corbin, 1998; Garceau, 2011), by signalling “(…) the hours of the day and times for prayers; they warned of tempests and enemy armies; they heralded masses, funerals, and deaths” (Garceau, 2011, p. 197; see also Feld, 2014) and acted as protection against evil spirits ( Rainio, 2006, p. 122).

 

Corbin (1998) even observed that: “a town without bells is like a blind man without a stick (…)” (p. 5). Clothes were embellished with bells (Hendy, 2013), the opening of stores, doors and markets were signaled by them (Alibhai, 2008), they marked rituals and rites of passage (Rainio, 2006; Corbin, 1998) and helped news spread quickly (Corbin, 1988). Feld (2014) compared this constant presence and symbolism of bells in small towns to bird song in the New Guinea rainforest (see also; Feld, 2012; Feld, 1991; Feld, 1996). This rich history and symbolism affects how a guide dog’s bell, and therefore the guide dog-team, is perceived by passersby – for better or worse.

 

Nevertheless, the question of welfare arises: Is it ethical for a dog to wear a potentially irritating bell? To clarify, my clients only use a bell during off-leash walks or when walking in a loud, unknown territory. Still, one study shows that cows wearing bells for three consecutive days has a negative effect on feeding and rest periods, but did not affect their heart rate (Johns, et al., 2015, p. 13). Cow bells are much louder and larger than a small guide dog bell and the extra weight played a large role in how the cows acted (Johns, et al., 2015). Horses (Christensen, et al, 2005) and goats (Johns, 2015) were also negatively affected by acute noise and other forms of wildlife are likely irritated by a bell in a perhaps otherwise peaceful soundscape. Dogs may be neurotic around a bell-wearing dog if they have made positive connections with similar sounds (e.g. doorbell ringing, feeding time) or they could become bothered and fearful. The bell’s potential influence on dogs’ behaviour directly affects the guide dog’s social life. So is the bell necessary?

 

I have never seen a guide dog show signs of discomfort, fear or irritation while wearing a bell. Many guide dogs get excited when they hear it, because the bell signals the beginning of a walk. In this sense, the bell is a positive factor in the relationship between visually impaired individuals and their guide dogs. Still, not all guide dog handlers want or need a bell. My dogs learn to frequently touch their human’s hand with their muzzle, making their presence known. This is an alternative to the bell for many. Furthermore, GPS dog-tracking Apps (such as “Dog Tracker Plus”, “Findmydog” or “Dog GPS Locator”), if adjusted to suit the visually impaired, could perhaps displace bells. The guide dog could wear a GPS tracking device on their collar, which tells the App and the human how many meters away and in which direction their dog is.

 

This paper has addressed the bell guide dogs often wear and how it affects the personal, social and collective identities of both the dog and their human. Bells have played an active role in history, causing their association with a guide dog to vary across cultures and amongst individuals – ultimately altering how the guide dog and his or her handler is perceived. While having a dog wear a bell is not always a perfect solution, it is a way for guide dog handlers to protect their dogs from potentially dangerous situations (hearing their dog approaching a road or bike, for example) and is a better alternative than leaving them without essential information about their companions.

 

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