The 21st century has certainly marked a turn in the development and use of technology. Most of us carry in our pockets a miniaturized computer allowing us everything from calling others, to checking our email, our stocks and the weather in Taiwan. We’ve become so addicted to our cell phones, that it’s hard to imagine going through the day without them. Until recently however, the pet industry stayed behind the technology boost experienced in other sectors. Today this multi million dollars market is finally catching up. Connected technologies, granting control of everything in our home with our phone, from the toaster to the alarm system, now also provides opportunities to develop high tech pet products. New tools to connect owners and their pets are rapidly emerging on the market allowing us to track our pet’s health, control their meal time or monitor their everyday movement, all while sitting at the office or at the mall. Few techies however are also animal specialists. So what may seem fun or useful for an engineer with a love for dogs, may not necessarily be canine friendly or even really helpful. The value of petnologies lies in their ability to affect positive change in the lives of those they interact with. Quick and easy for the owner, may not necessarily be kind, enriching and instructive for those on the receiving end.
No matter how good the technology, it will never replace the human in the relationship that people have with their pets. Our smart phones have allowed us to escape from direct social contacts, and communicate mostly by texts and emails. Still the latter does not offer the level of satisfaction and intimacy as a dinner or movie with a friend. In the same way, a computer or fancy toy cannot substitute for the social bond between a dog and their guardian. But where technology can truly be of value is in assisting us in the areas where it’s the hardest to provide to our pets needs: training, behavioral therapy and enrichment.
Training & behavior
Even with the best of intentions, most dog owners struggle with effectively training their dog. Dog training is hard. It requires motor skills, consistency and timing, all of which take time and effort to develop. So an automated way to put in those repetitions and treat the dog for the appropriate behavior, with precise timing, would make a significant difference.
In an attempt to shorten the training time, electronic collars have been used over the years to keep dogs within certain boundaries, to teach them to come when called, to stop barking and more. I recently watched a promotional video for one of those collars that showed how most problem behaviors could be treated. The collar could make the difference between alert barking to an intruder that was considered a desired behavior (and therefore not punished), and nuisance barking when left alone. All we need to do is select the right mode and trigger the collar from our smart phone. Sadly, the whole premise here is to interrupt and inhibit the undesirable behavior with no understanding of the dog’s distress. It’s like punishing a child for crying after his mom leaves the room and never helping him get over his fears.
For any technology to be truly valuable, it has to affect positive change for the benefit of both the owner and the animal. As a believer in science based training, I want to see the underlying emotion addressed and not only the symptom. In the case of barking when left alone for instance, rewarding the dog when quiet and offering enrichment activities are much better alternatives (depending on the level of separation anxiety of course). For more on how technology can be used in this situation, you can read “Separation anxiety in dogs – a consultant high tech toolkit“.
A nice example of where technology is heading is in the high tech vest developed by Dr Roberts and his students at the North Carolina University to assist in the training and monitoring of search and rescue dogs. When the dog is fitted with the gear, the trainer can: 1) monitor the environment the dog is in, checking on the quality and temperature of the air for instance and video tracking the dog’s progress. 2) Monitor the dog with GPS but also sensors for movement, heart rate, respiratory rate, stress levels, etc., so that at any time, the trainer knows if its time to give the dog a break. 3) Communicate directly with the dog through speakers and vibrating devices placed on different places on the harness.
We love our dogs but we also live very busy lives. Technology is developing fast in the area of pet entertainment. The IFetch for instance allows the dog to play fetch even when the owner is away.
With the Petchatz , iCPooch and the Petzila, we can check on our pet through video, talk to them and give them a treat. The Pet Cube also provides us with a way to check on our pet through video, but also hear, talk or play with our dog or cat with a laser beam (or maybe even our ferret, although I don’t really know how a ferret likes to play), all that through our smart phone! These devices are great ways to give our pet some entertainment in an otherwise very boring day. I have concerns however when it comes to talking to the dog. This might be confusing and potentially distressing to certain dogs.
The Pet Tutor® falls in both the training/behavior and enrichment category as it can dispense treats remotely by the trainer, but can also be set on automatic mode. One of the applications is to reward the dog when quiet when left alone for instance. When the remote is in tilt sensor mode, it can also allow the creation of all sorts of interactive training or enrichment tools.
Another interesting category of technological tools is in communication. Who wouldn’t want to better understand their pet? The “No More Woof”, still in development, is one of the attempts to translate the dog’s feelings and intentions into human words. “Let your dog speak its mind” as they claim. Through EEG-sensoring, this high tech headgear literally reads the dog’s brain activity and translates it into statements like “I’m tired”, “I’m hungry” or “I’m curious who that is”. It would be interesting to see this device in action. I’m curious about some of the interpretations of the dogs’ thoughts but would love to have a way to help owners read their dog’s emotions. Knowing when a dog is afraid could dramatically improve how we respond.
Health and tracking
Probably the most important category of tech devices has to do with monitoring the dog’s health and activity. Whistle and FitBark for instance track when the dog is active or at rest and sends regular updates to our phone. Petnet collects data about how much and how often the dog eats and Tagg the GPS Pet Tracker will track the pet’s daily exercise levels while sending an alert as soon as he leaves the boundaries of the property.
There are many others, fun, useful and not-so-useful devices on the market, or in various phases of development. The next few years will see a dramatic growth in high tech pet tools and gadget of all sorts. My only hope is that those who engineer these devices take the time to consult with trainers and behaviorists who base their techniques and knowledge in animal science. I would also love to hear of ideas that you might have on the subject. What kind of technology would help you with your pet?
To learn more about incorporating high tech into dog training, don’t miss the first Pet Technology Conference IN Milpitas, CA, November 8th or 9th 2014.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.