Remember the animated Pixar movie "UP" where a grumpy, old man is softened by a talking dog named Dug? A futuristic collar translates Dug’s thoughts into words, but the trouble is Dug never really stops talking.
David Roberts, assistant professor of computer science at N.C. State University, is working with a team to create a “smart harness” for dogs to communicate with people. But before you start writing down all the things you have wanted to say to your dog, Roberts urges that this project is definitely not "UP."
“It would be cool, but even if that were possible it would fundamentally change our relationship with dogs, and not for the positive,” Roberts said. “I would argue that we have conversations with our dog all the time and we don’t realize it because of how perceptive they are.”
Roberts said the harness is a platform for computer-mediated communication that enriches the relationship with dogs and their handlers. The mission is to teach humans what dogs are saying with their behavioral cues, and for handlers to direct dogs using nonverbal communication. Roberts said humans use nuanced and sophisticated words to talk with one another, but dogs are the opposite.
“Dogs talk with the intent of their gaze, the magnitude of their tail wag, or their ear position back against their head opposed to upright,” he said. “The challenge for us is designing a system for dogs by building a hardware and software that translates dogs' natural communication.”
The black harness has several electrodes giving dogs audio and sensory directional cues from its handler. Roberts said the harness's haptics technology sends the dog vibrations, similar to those you receive on a cell phone.
“But the vibrations are not aversive,” Roberts said. “In no way is it punishment for a dog. It’s a gentle input to train them to perform different things when they are out of sight from their handlers.”
Roberts said the harness would be useful for dogs in several different environments - whether it is a search-and-rescue dog, guide dog or a domestic pet. And while he’s a professor and not a businessman, Roberts said he's adamant about the technology being affordable to every dog owner. He pointed to his colleague Dr. Sherman, who works with NCSU’s Behavioral Medicine Service and helps owners train their dogs to improve the dog's behavior.
“Dog owners many times have great intentions, but also have access to poor quality information, and have created behavioral problems in their dogs by reacting inappropriately to the cues their dogs were giving them,” Roberts said.
Roberts said his team’s project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a little more than halfway through, and the computerized harness is on its way to understanding how dog’s postural behaviors show emotions like stress. But Roberts said the computer on a dog’s back will never replace the loving relationship with the owner.
“We will never replace humans in a dog’s life. The social desire to please us is so important to them,” he said. “We are providing new avenues for enriching the activities that we do with our dogs so we can be more effective at interpreting them, but humans are always going to play a central role.”