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Putting Words in Dogs’ Mouths
Technology facilitates communication

What if dogs could talk? Specifically, what if service dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs could talk? Associate Professor Melody Moore Jackson at Georgia Tech, and a team that includes Professor Thad Starner, Research Scientist Clint Zeagler, and Jackson’s Border Collie Sky, are developing technology that allows dogs to say anything we give them the capability of saying. They’ve called their project FIDO, which is short for “Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations.”

They developed a vest with sensors on it that dogs can activate to communicate. The vest can play a message or send a text to a smart phone. From a training perspective, it’s a basic system—dogs are trained to hit specific sensors in response to certain cues. So, if asked which toy a person is holding, the dog can hit a sensor that plays a message that says, “That is the Frisbee®” or “That is the ball.” That is a cool trick, but the real genius of this vest is the variety of messages dogs can send.

For example, a service dog for a hearing-impaired person might hit a sensor in response to an alarm that sends a text saying, “I heard the alarm,” and a different sensor in response to the doorbell so that the message reads, “I heard the doorbell.” Many hearing impaired dogs lead their person to the source of a sound, such as a crying baby. This vest adds to the benefits of a service dog because it would also allow a person to be notified of a sound that is not reachable, such as a tornado siren. Just like distinguishing between the ball and the Frisbee®, telling these sounds apart is a type of discrimination task, and is the basis for many of the ways that this vest can be used.

For example, detection dogs are usually trained to bark if they find what they are looking for, perhaps a drug or an explosive. Although dogs are often trained to search for multiple types of drugs or explosives, they are limited in their ability to communicate the details of their finds to their handlers. It can make a big difference to everyone’s safety if the dog can let a handler know that the bomb is a stable type or an unstable one that needs careful handling. This vest can allow a dog to share more specific information.

This group developed a vest that allows a dog who has found anyone trapped after a natural disaster to activate a sensor with a message for that person to hear. The message lets the trapped individual know that help is on the way. Work is underway to develop a vest that allows a dog to activate a sensor that sends GPS coordinates to a handler. This allows the handler to join the dog, who does not have to leave the person who has been found. That could be lifesaving for a child who is hiding or for a person who is unable to move for whatever reason.

Similar technology could benefit people with any number of health problems. Imagine that a person with epilepsy has a seizure and the service dog has been trained to activate a sensor in response to that situation. The activation of the sensor would result in a call to 911 and also send a message to a family member. The message would include GPS coordinates and say, “My person had a seizure and 911 has been contacted.”

The possibilities of this technology are limitless. A dog could be trained to hit a sensor in response to someone saying, “Get help.” When that sensor is hit, a recording plays so anyone nearby hears, “My owner needs your attention. Please follow me.” This technology is very exciting because it allows dogs to communicate specific helpful information to people. The beauty of the design is that it is relatively easy to teach dogs with a solid base of training to activate sensors in response to specific cues. These vests represent a wonderful blending of solid dog training with new technology to increase the ability of dogs and people to accomplish a variety of tasks together.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

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Karen B. London
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Karen B. London
By
Karen B. London
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