On 17 December 2015 Riin Magnus will defence her doctoral thesis „The Semiotic Grounds of Animal Assistance: Sign Use of Guide Dogs and Their Visually Impaired Handlers“ in the Council of the Institute of Philosophy and Semiotic
Supervisor: Kalevi Kull, University of Tartu
Opponents: Dario Martinelli (Kaunas University) and Jaan Valsiner (Aalborg University)
Urban environment as well as the rules of behaviour applied there contain certain expectations for sign systems that would allow for coping in such conditions. The combination of human and canine sign systems does not only assure an accommodation to the preexisting conditions, but entails the use of novel cues, the specification of the meaning of objects through interspecific communication, and the testing of the existing borders between humans and animals in a society. Although in semiotic terms communication and perception are different phenomena, the analysis conducted in the theses indicates that communication is used in guide dog work to direct the perceptual processes and perception in turn initiates communicative situations.
The idea that one member of the guide dog team is a part of the other’s extended body plan is disputed in the thesis. Both members of the team have their own umwelten with specific sign relations. As an outcome of the intrateam cooperation those umwelten undergo change while the interests of the other being are introduced as factors of meaning generation. Relying on interviews and participatory observation, it is demonstrated in the thesis that the sign complexes in guide dog work are formed around more specific sub-tasks of assistance (e.g. orientation; finding places and objects; avoidance of obstacles) and that the intrateam cooperation often evolves towards less hierarchical, less discrete and anticipatory modes of semiosis.
The semiotic challenges that the guide dog teams face are analysed in the thesis on the example of Swedish, German and Estonian guide dog teams. The challenges related to perception come about if significant cues in the environment remain imperceptible for the team or if they divert the team from their trajectory of movement; communicative challenges are related to the difficulty of understanding whether the other member of the team is currently using work related signs or not; and social challenges stem from the often contradictory meaning of guide dogs in different social contexts (e.g. due to religious taboos or hygienic considerations).