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Good Vibrations Dog Training

Dog trained to respond to tactile cues from motors inside vest
By Karen B. London PhD, July 2019, Updated June 2021

Auditory cues and visual cues are both useful when training dogs because they each have their advantages. Auditory cues can work even when the dog is out of sight, and visual cues are still functional when an area is too noisy for dogs to hear what someone says. Though dogs tend to learn visual cues faster than auditory ones, both sensory modalities are good ways to give cues to a dog. Tactile cues are another option, and recent work by scientists at Ben Gurion University in Israel have shown that dogs can learn to respond to such cues.

A Labrador Retriever mix named Tai was taught to respond to remote-controlled vibrations in a vest. The vest can hold multiple motors that are near the top of each leg. Each motor can vibrate with a steady motion or with a pulse. Various cues based on location and type of vibration correspond to a specific behavior. Tai can correctly respond by backing up, coming, lying down and turning.

There are many practical implications of this vest that extend far beyond demonstrating that dogs can learn to respond to tactile cues. There are situations in which neither vocal or visual cues can be used, and such situations are especially common with search-and-rescue dogs. These dogs often work at a distance from their handlers, in rubble or tight spaces, which can put them out of sight and out of earshot. Tactile cues allow communication from the handler to the dog despite these challenges.

The use of a remote control allows people with vocal impairments and those who have difficulty with motor movements to communicate with a dog as well. It’s also a way to make cues standardized since the vibrations are uniform no matter who operates the remote control.

The research team who trained Tai presented their findings at an international conference in Tokyo on haptics (the study of motion and touch) and haptic technology, which creates an experience of touch with vibrations or the application of forces. Tai was destined to be the star of the show!

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life