Do you see what I see? High-tech harness facilitates human-dog communication

Do you ever wish you could know how Fido is feeling? Ever wanted to text your dog to “come inside,” rather than chasing her around the yard? This may one day be possible, with the help of a high-tech harness that facilitates human-dog communication like never before.

In 2014, researchers from the University of North Carolina developed a Cyber-Enhanced Working Dog (CEWD) harness that enhances communication between search and rescue dogs and their owners. Working dogs are often sent into dangerous or unpredictable environments, outside of their owners’ line of sight. This harness incorporates inertial measurement units that track the dog’s movements, and physiological sensors that measure the dog’s body temperature and heart rate. The data is relayed wirelessly and is analyzed by software in the human’s smartphone application. Based on this data, algorithms can detect the physical health and level of stress experienced by the dog. Alerted that Fido is anxious and unable to perform her task, for example, her owner may suggest another course of action, or perhaps offer a drink of water before continuing her work.

How might Fido receive these thoughtful suggestions when she is unable to see her human? She can sense them. With a tap on her smartphone screen, her owner sends her specific instructions. The CEWD software translates the instructions into signals that Fido has been trained to recognize. Her haptic harness translates his wishes into vibrations on different parts of her body to signal commands that she associates with specific sensations. Combined with the audio speakers that play pre-recorded instructions, she is able to respond to over 100 different signals.

Beyond this two-way exchange, the harness can provide additional details about the dog’s environment. By integrating a microphone, camera and sensors, Fido’s owner can see what she sees and hear what she hears. While this isn’t quite telepathy, it allows for a heightened and efficient communication between dog and owner, which is crucial in time-sensitive missions where lives are at stake. Of course, complex communication between dogs and humans has taken many forms over the 15,000 years that dogs have been domesticated. Their ability to understand human body language, spoken word and facial expressions, and their varied repertoire of barks and tendency towards eye contact, have enabled them to collaborate with humans across time and cultures, such as through shepherding and hunting practices.

The Cyber-Enhanced Working Dog technology builds on these existing abilities by collecting data that enables dog owners to monitor and respond to dogs’ surroundings and behaviour even when they are out of sight. “We’re using this technology to ask some very fundamental questions about the nature of the way that animals can perceive computer-mediated communications and the way they can interact with computers to send digital signals across wireless communication links to handlers,” says David Roberts, one of the researchers behind the CEWD harness. This technology is applicable beyond search and rescue purposes and has the potential to enhance other human-dog relationships where communication is key, such as guide dogs for the blind.

While a harness of this calibre is not (yet) available for your household pet, Dr. Alpert Bozkurt, an engineer on the team, explains: “Our dream is to give people the capability to train their dogs like professionals at home, so that the pets can be turned into working animals”. The potential of harnesses to enhance human-dog exchange has sparked the interest of many. In the medical community, researchers with the Georgia Tech-based FIDO Project are developing a vest that, when tugged in the right way, plays pre-recorded messages such as “My owner needs your attention! Please follow me!” And in 2019, Yoav Golan and his team developed a vibrotactile vest that enables dog handlers to give orders with a wireless remote. While all of these innovations are at the “proof-of-concept” stage, a high-tech harness may be part of Fido’s wardrobe before you know it.


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Photo by Courtenay Crane.