Anyone who has trained a dog knows the importance of speed and consistency when it comes to rewarding desired behaviors. But we're humans, and we're not perfect. Can a computer make up for our shortcomings?
The team designed a custom harness with built-in sensors that monitor the dog's posture and sends the information wirelessly to a computer. Then an algorithm recognizes a predetermined data pattern (for instance, the dog going from a standing to sitting position) and reinforces correct behavior by releasing dog treats from a nearby dispenser
According to computer science professor David Roberts, the computer is accurate, but it didn't come easily.
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One of the challenges the researchers had to work through was the trade off between delivering reinforcement quickly and giving the algorithm enough time to ensure the behavior had been done correctly with 100 percent certainty. If the reinforcement was given immediately, there was a high rate of rewarding the wrong behavior—a dilemma us dog trainers know all too well!
To address this, the researchers worked with 16 volunteers and their dogs to optimize the algorithm, finding the best possible combination of speed and accuracy. The outcome was highly accurate, rewarding the appropriate behavior 96 percent of the time. While expert dog trainers can achieve a near 100 percent accuracy, the computer has a significant edge in time of response. Even an expert human trainer has a lot of variation in this area. The algorithm is incredibly consistent.
The researchers see endless possibilities in the area of animal-computer interaction. The next step in their work is to see how they can combine this technology with human directed training, to make us more efficient, and also apply the algorithm to training service dogs. One day they also want to explore allowing dogs to “use” computers. Imagine if a diabetic alert dog could use a trained behavior to call for help!
A computer will never replace the special bond that develops between person and dog, but it could be a very interesting tool that could help us more effectively train our pups.