Charles Muntz, the villain of the Pixar movie Up, owns a pack of dogs who wear special collars that allow the dogs to speak English with humans. Though your dog isn’t likely to learn that trick anytime soon, a group of researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a device that help bridge the communication gap between dogs and humans. David Roberts and Alper Bozkurt are co-lead authors of the paper, which has been published in an open access format in the journal IEEE Intelligent Systems.
“We’ve developed a platform for computer-mediated communication between humans and dogs that opens the door to new avenues for interpreting dogs’ behavioral signals and sending them clear and unambiguous cues in return,” Roberts said in a press release. “We have a fully functional prototype, but we’ll be refining the design as we explore more and more applications for the platform.”
To achieve this communication, the dog wears a wireless harness that contains two devices. The first device takes physical cues from the dog in order to communicate with humans. The dog’s posture, heart rate, and other biometrics are gathered and analyzed by a computer, which delivers the information to humans.
The other device allows humans to send understandable signals to the dog. These messages are sent using haptic technology, which uses vibrations to give information to the dogs.
“Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and one of our challenges was to develop sensors that tell us about their behavior by observing their posture remotely,” Roberts continued. “So we can determine when they’re sitting, standing, running, etc., even when they’re out of sight – a harness-mounted computer the size of a deck of cards transmits those data wirelessly.”
The technology isn’t meant to foster verbal communication, but instead is meant to get a better readout of the dog’s well-being and emotional state, which is especially important for service dogs, police dogs, and those used in search and rescue. Environmental sensors and microphones on the device also give humans a better picture of what circumstances the dog is facing, such as being near a gas leak. The ability for humans to give dogs signals in ways that they can understand can also speed up and improve training.
“This can help handlers identify and mitigate stress for the dogs, improving the length and quality of a dog’s life,” co-author Sean Mealin explained. “It’s an important issue. Particularly because guide dogs are bred and trained not to display signs of stress in their behavior.”
Going forward, the team hopes to adapt the technology into a smaller harness, which will allow it to be used on smaller dogs. The team hopes that animal shelters and veterinarians could incorporate this technology and use it to help relieve the dogs’ stress levels and get a better sense of their well-being, even if they’re trying to play coy and hide some of their problems.