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Techno Dogs
A survey of milestones and innovations.

You might say that dogs were our first high-tech projects. As we co-evolved, we learned how to direct and develop dogs’ skills to benefit ourselves and to extend our reach. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and developments in technology are blasting at us at warp speed. From the basic (converting poo to power) to the jaw-dropping (growing bionic bone), technology holds a promise of better lives—not to mention some pretty cool gizmos—for us all. Here are a few highlights.

Gadgets

Start with a curious mind, add a dash of technology and what do you get?

  • Ashpoopie, a tool that applies a special formula to dog waste, turning it almost immediately to ash.
  • Poo Prints, a way to determine the source of uncollected dog waste via DNA.
  • Pet CFL, a light bulb with a built-in ionizer that releases negative ions, which bond with dander and remove it from the air.
  • The Judd Treat Machine, create your own high tech remote treat dispenser—inventor John Krantz made his venture (named after his dog) an open sourced project, providing the Python code and CAD model free online.
  • iSeePet360, a feeder with a built-in web cam and USB connection that allows you to see and speak to your dog and make food and water available remotely.
  • SureFlap, a pet door that recognizes dogs (and cats) by their microchips, and can be programmed to allow or deny entry at specifi c times.
  • PetChatz, a “greet and treat” videophone that puts you in touch with your dog when you’re away from home.
  • Dog Caller, a collar that sends a text message if your dog is overheating.
  • WaterDog, a canine drinking fountain that uses a sonar presence sensor to identify when your dog is within three feet, turn on the water, and turn it off when she walks away.

Solutions

Where there’s a problem, technology can often offer a fix, or at least an improvement.

  • Light-therapy pads and cold lasers are non-invasive ways to treat joint problems, relieve pain and swelling, and speed up healing.
  • Dogs with heart problems are now having pacemakers implanted, improving both the quality and the length of their lives.
  • Tweet your peep—when dogs go missing, people frequently turn to social media such as Twitter to enlist help in finding them.
  • For pups who roam, several types of GPS tracking devices monitor a dog’s location and activities and send email or text messages if he goes out of bounds.
  • From Petfinder.com to Facebook to Pinterest, rescue groups are making increasingly sophisticated use of online resources to find homes for their dogs.
  • More dog hair than time to clean it up? Automatic vacuum units busily whisk around the house while you’re gone, then tuck themselves back into their charging bases.
  • Vets are beginning to take advantage of Skype and other video-call systems to facilitate remote consultations and minimize stress for dogs dealing with serious conditions.

Apps

Want to dress up a virtual dog, find an actual dog park or give your dog’s social life a boost? There’s an app for that … and for a whole lot more.

  • Dog Park Assistant (Sue Sternberg/iPhone): Catalogs canine behaviors and body language, including an extensive section on how to determine a dog’s play style(s) and match him or her with compatible playmates.
  • Dog Park Finder Plus (Dog Park USA/iPhone): Displays local dog parks and search results in both map and list forms. Details include ratings, fenced and unfenced markers, hours, days of operation
  • Dog Bells (Hungry Wasp/iPhone): Dogs thrive on routine, and this app helps you either establish or maintain one. It’s a simple, useful tool to remind yourself when it’s time for your dog’s medication, meals, walks … especially helpful when housetraining a puppy.
  • Pet First Aid (Jive Media Inc./Android & iPhone): Videos and step-by-step illustrations guide you through fi rstaid basics—a good app to spend some time with before you need it. Android & iPhone): Use the Internet to get off the Internet and be part of a community of likeminded folks—fi nd other local dogophiles and get together in real time.
  • Meetup (Meetup/Android & iPhone): Use the Internet to get off the Internet and be part of a community of likeminded folks—find other local dogophiles and get together in real time.
  • My Dog (Dog Info, USA/ iPhone): This “paw-pilot” tracks medical, training and diet schedules; provides a national business-service directory; and incorporates a travel guide with listings of verifi ed pet-friendly hotels and more.
  • Pet Poison Help (Pet Poison Helpline/ iPhone): Access a database of 250 dog-toxic substances, including photos, descriptions and symptoms; for added utility, call the helpline from within the app.
  • Map My Dog Walk (Subaru/iPhone): This fi tness motivator uses your phone’s built-in GPS to track (in real time) your outdoor excursions; among other things, the app marks your path on an interactive map and records important metrics.

Bio-Tech

Lightworks
In an unusual reversal, cold laser therapy was used on people decades before it was tried on dogs. Cold lasers, low-level lasers or light-emitting diodes, are noninvasive and are most often used to help dogs suffering from arthritis, dysplasia or other musculoskeletal pain. The laser’s red light penetrates the skin and reduces pain and inflammation by stimulating circulation. Over the past few years, laser technology has improved and so, reportedly, have the results.

Another type of light is said to help SAD dogs—those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder. A new Portland based company is creating light boxes similar to those used by humans; in fact, the founder was inspired by seeing how well his dog responded to the light box he used to treat his own insomnia. Taken in roughly 30-minute doses, the bright white light is thought to increase levels of serotonin and thus, a feeling of overall well being, which dogs seem to enjoy as much as we do.

Swabbing the Dog
Dog? Check. Buccal swab? Check. Apply the latter to the former, inside of cheek. Rub for 10 seconds. Voilà. DNA collected. Until fairly recently, we could only wonder if potential problems lurked in our co-pilots’ DNA. Now, however, it’s possible to know—maybe not everything and maybe not 100 percent, but at least the probabilities. Thanks to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and the University of Missouri College of Vet Medicine, I know that my dog has two normal copies of the gene that, if mutated, puts a dog at risk for degenerative myelopathy (in humans, it’s known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Now I can start worrying about something else.

Stem Cell Research In the field of regenerative medicine, which searches for innovative therapies that allow the body to repair and restore damaged or diseased tissues, stem cells offer one of the best hopes for success. Part of the body’s repair team, stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves and can sometimes become specific cells with special functions. In November of last year, the results of a trial conducted at the University of Cambridge showed spinal cord regeneration in dogs with severe spinal cord injuries (many of whom were Dachshunds). Thirty-four pet dogs took part in the trial; those who received a transplant of olfactory ensheathing cells— which came from their own noses—had significant improvements. Read more about Swabbing the Dog.

Canine Genome
Today, inside the elegant double helix of the canine genome, science is searching for answers to health problems plaguing both people and dogs. Their search is guided by the map completed in 2004 by teams involved in the Dog Genome Project. This map has become a valuable tool in identifying genetic markers for diseases common to both species; to date, more than 360 disorders found in humans have also been described in dogs. The next step has been to look for treatments. Last year, a California-based company began testing a genetically engineered virus that, it is hoped, will annihilate tumor cells. Also in 2012, a University of Pennsylvania research team studying another shared disorder, X-linked retinitis pigmentosa, which is caused by defects in the RPGR gene, found that a therapeutic RPGR gene can be delivered specifically to diseased rods and cones via a genetically modified virus.
 

Oddities

Low Tech: Historically, leather tanning was considered a smelly business, and no wonder. As one step in the process, dung—commonly, from dogs—was pounded into the hides, or they were soaked in large vats filled with a dung/water mixture. Those who collected the dung were called “pure finders.”

Robo-Dog: To give mechanical man Elektro a companion at the 1939 World’s Fair, Westinghouse built Sparko, a robot dog that engineer Don Lee Hadley modeled on his own Scotty. After the fair, Electro and Sparko hit the road, making appearances in department stores and at theme parks.

Sticky Inspiration: A walk in the woods with his dog led Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral to invent Velcro® (a combination of the words “velor” and “crochet”) in 1948. As he was removing burs from his dog’s coat, he noticed how they bound themselves to the fur. It wasn’t long before Velcro® rivaled zippers.

Waste Not

Natural Gas: It turns out that dog poo, the stuff we pick up and toss, is a useful—and a definitely renewable—resource. Placed in an airtight container, or “digester,” anaerobic bacteria break it down, converting it to biogas—primarily methane. At Cosmo Dog Park in Gilbert, Ariz., a digester project run by students at Arizona State University’s College of Technology powers one of the park’s lights and reduces maintenance costs. It’s also lighting up the night in Cambridge, Mass., in Pacific Street Park, where conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta’s “Project Park Spark” keeps the flame burning in an old-fashioned park light using methane produced in a dual-tank digester. In both instances, the systems are themselves fueled by dog owners, who use biodegradable bags to pick up after their pups, then toss the bags in the digester: a perfect functional/technical mash-up.

Connectivity: A Mexico City Internet company recently tested a novel concept in 10 public parks: dog-walkers dropped full poop bags into a special container that doubled as a router. For each pound of poop deposited, a set number of minutes of free wi-fi were available to all park users. Though it was conceived as a short-term publicity action, rewarding people for doing the right thing sounds like a winner to us.

Poop Power: Pet waste is a big deal, and a big business. An entire industry is devoted to removing it from yards, dog daycares, vet clinics and cities. Left uncollected, it’s a hazard not only to the unwary but also to the environment. To keep it out of landfills and waterways, some cities are taking the proactive approach of asking trash collection companies to apply technology to the problem. By developing strategies to convert poop to power, this oh-so-common waste material can be converted to a useful and environment- friendly fuel.

Sad Tech: In 1957, a Soviet mutt named Laika became the first animal to orbit the Earth, as well as the first to die in the process. A good-natured stray from the streets of Moscow, Laika became famous worldwide as “Muttnik.” Her demise was met with protest from around the world, and help propel the humane movement into the modern age.

Bad Tech: Snuppy, an Afghan Hound born in 2005, is credited with being the world’s first cloned dog, and Time labeled him the “most amazing invention of the year.” Commercial cloning of dogs has since become slightly more common, but is still a controversial use of the technology.

Weird Science: Using high-speed cameras and advanced mathematics, researchers have studied everything from how dogs shake themselves dry to how they figure out where to intercept a flung Frisbee. Thanks to their loose skin, wet dogs can shake off 70 percent of the water from their fur in four seconds; their backbones move only 30 degrees in either direction, but their skin can swing a full 90 degrees. Some of the things they discover may eventually find their way into use—such as automated cleaning techniques for the interiors of distant space rovers.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 73: Spring 2013
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