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Dogs and People Are Always Communicating: Do We Need a Translator?


To your dog, you are a book. Dogs never put it down; they never stop reading us. Dogs read us in ways we understand, and in ways we don’t.

We sometimes forget that we share our lives, our families, homes, and often our beds with a totally different species than our own.  Despite the differences in our biology, dogs are pretty adept at reading us. The problem is that we’re generally not quite as good at reading them.

And we’re often unaware that dogs are constantly paying attention to us, what we’re doing, what we’re saying, how we’re saying it, even how we smell from those pheromones we emit to even being able to detect subtle changes in insulin.

And it when it comes to understanding our dogs – despite our intelligence and history with dogs which dates back thousands of years, sometimes we’re simply better at understanding what our dogs are trying to say than at other times when we completely misinterpret.

With all this in mind, North Carolina State University researchers have developed a suite of technologies that can be used to enhance communication between dogs and humans, which has applications in everything from search and rescue to service dogs to training our pets.

It’s a 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. Dr. David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-lead author of a paper on the work said, “We have a fully functional prototype, but we’ll be refining the design as we explore more and more applications for the platform.”

The platform itself is a harness that fits comfortably onto the dog, and which is equipped with a variety of technologies.

There are two types of communication technologies, one that allows us to communicate with the dogs, and one that allows them to communicate with us.

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.

At the same time, they also incorporated speakers and vibrating motors, called haptics, into the harness, which enable us to communicate with the dogs.

The technology also includes physiological sensors that monitor things like heart rate and body temperature. The sensors not only track a dog’s physical well-being, but can offer information on a dog’s emotional state, such as whether it is excited or stressed.

One goal of the device is to help handlers identify and mitigate stress for the dogs, improving the length and quality of a dog’s life. This may become particularly important for working dogs who, to a degree, have been bred not to communicate anxiety.  Dogs often communicate non-verbally, and handlers of guide dogs, of course, can’t see non-verbal communication.

The paper, “Towards Cyber-Enhanced Working Dogs for Search and Rescue,” is published  in IEEE Intelligent Systems. The paper was co-authored by NC State Ph.D. students John Majikes and Robert Loftin, and by former NC State Ph.D. student Dr. Pu Yang. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Cyber Physical System Program grant number 1329738.

And – you can bet – if this device ultimately works out, there will one day be an app for that.


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