Positive Reinforcement Goes High Tech

Pet Tutor®In the past few decades, we’ve become accustomed to regular advances in technology. We’ve seen computers evolve from gigantic information processors to easy to use personal laptops. Phones were once bulky rotary appliances stuck to our kitchen walls. Today all of us carry portable devices that connect us to everything we need, from relatives to email, social network and of course, to the world-wide-web. In animal training, technology has not followed the same exciting path. We might have a few more tools here and there, but overall, we still rely mostly on our own training and management skills. Times are changing! Technology is now finally catching up and taking off with exhilarating speed in the field of animal training. With Bluetooth technology, combined with motion, tilt and sound sensors, “the only limit is our imagination”. For the very first time, a commercial automated training system is going open architecture!

Many have seen the value of automation in animal training, but due to the complexity of such a task, few have succeeded. B.F. Skinner of course was well known for his Skinner boxes, where animals learned particular behaviors without human intervention through trial and error. Punishment based electronic tools have been around to automatically discourage barking or roaming but technology geared to reinforce desired behavior has been very limited so far. In the past decade, the Treat & Train (previously Manners Minder developed by late Dr. Yin), enabled trainers to automatically dispense treats or to reward at a distance. This device was a big step in our understanding of the value of automated devices to assist us in the training of certain behaviors.

Modern technology can now take us even further. What if, just like with smart phones, anyone could create their own app to train and play with their dog? What if Makers and engineers could develop their own tools or toys, each one activating an automated treat dispenser? This is what the new Pet Tutor® is bringing to the table. The new generation of treat dispensers, The Pet Tutor Blu is now equipped with the latest high tech Bluetooth technology making it easy to interface from an app on your smart phone or a Bean (Lightblue Bean BLE device). The goal of the Smart Animal Training Systems’ team is to speed up the number of options available for positive reinforcement based training and enrichment by letting others add software and hardware. More people bring more creativity, more resources, more technology and ultimately, more options for the dogs.

The Pet Tutor Blu will be triggered from an app on your smart phone. Press the “Feed” button, and treats come out. Set the feeder on automatic mode, select your preferred interval and watch the Pet Tutor Blu deliver the treats without any further intervention. If you need to reinforce your pet during the process, no problem, just press the “Feed” button. The automatic mode will still run and continue with the program.

How about triggering multiple feeders at a time? In my line of work, I often need to reinforce multiple dogs for silence in their crates and lying down on their cots. Through the app, we can now press a single button and activate many Pet Tutors at the same time. We can also set all the treat dispensers on automatic mode, freeing us completely from having to either walk over to each dog or even pressing a button to reinforce their calm behavior.

If that wasn’t cool enough, here’s where things really start getting fun. The Bean, that little piece of technology that comes in the Pet Tutor Blu, is going to expand the possibilities far beyond what we’ve even been able to accomplish so far. Let me be a little technical for a second for those geeks out there (no more than a second though, as I don’t fully understand all the technicalities myself, I leave those to the engineering team). The Lightblue Bean is an Arduino compatible board with Bluetooth Low Energy(BLE). Built into this small processor are an accelerometer, a temperature sensor and iBeacon support. In simple English, this means that it can be placed in all sorts of devices and trigger them wirelessly from your iphone, your ipad or from your personal laptop.

Pet Tutor

In a toy Smart Clicker(tm) triggers feeder for a game

One of the first external devices in development by the Smart Animal Training System’s team is the Smart Clicker™. A clicker with a Bean, or should I say, with a brain! The Smart Clicker™ can work with your phone only or take over the control of the Pet Tutor, so instead of your phone, all you’re now holding in your hand is a small clicker. I’ve personally been playing with it for a few weeks and have really enjoyed its size and shape. In training sessions, the Smart Clicker™ has worked better for me than having to use my phone. Since the Bean has all those great features already built in, the Smart Clicker™ can also be placed inside a toy. As soon as the animal moves the toy, the Pet Tutor is triggered! This can be really handy when working on targeting but can also be an easy tool to create all sorts of enrichment games. Placed in a Kong® Wobbler or in a ball, for instance, your pet will learn how to hit it with his/her nose or paw, then run to the Pet Tutor to get a treat.

For the trainers who like to keep count of their trainees performance, the Smart Clicker™ will also allow you to count how many times your animal performed the desired behavior or missed it. So if you’ve been guesstimating when it was time to increase your criteria up until now, with this clicker, you’ll be able to know exactly when you can push it up and even keep stats of your training sessions.

smart clicker applications

Smart Clicker(tm)

For instructors or trainers who want to improve their timing, here’s an interesting function for you. You’ll need a dog (or other animal of course), a Pet Tutor® and multiple Smart Clicker™s. Each person has a clicker. One of the clickers is either placed in a toy on tilt mode (so activated by the dog when touching the toy) or is used by an instructor. That’s the only clicker that will actually activate the treat dispenser and reward the animal. As everybody clicks for a particular behavior from the animal, the app keeps track of each individual clicker. So Janet may have clicked a tenth of a second sooner than the instructor, while John was a third of a second late. All those clicks can be stored to keep track of progress and trends within a particular session or over different sessions. It’s possible that Janet, for instance, is always a tad late and will need to practice clicking a little earlier. John however, may be .3-.5 seconds too late in most cases.

The most exciting part of all this is that this entire system is open for more creativity. That’s the open architecture. Anyone with ideas and resources can create an app, a toy or a training tool that can trigger the Pet Tutor Blu. Imagine a Bean placed in a vest on the dog and programmed to trigger the treat dispenser when the dog’s body is at a certain angle. The dog sits, the Pet Tutor rewards, all by itself! I’m waiting for this to be paired with motion sensors that I can then use in scent detection. When the dog puts its nose in the right container then sits, the Pet Tutor is triggered. This won’t ever replace the need for a trainer, but there are times when a person may unknowingly give out cues to the dog. There are also certain tasks when we need the dog to move away from the trainer. A couple of universities and developers currently have projects underway using the Pet Tutor Blu. A team from North Carolina State University for instance has developed a high-tech dog harness equipped with all sorts of sensors. They’re currently working on pairing some of the functions of the vest with the Pet Tutor Blu. None of these projects have been made public yet, so we’ll have to be patient before we find out what they were able to design.

Motion detection, boundary control, scent work, barking, etc. There are so many applications to this new technology. With more teams working on developing new tools, we can expect many exciting projects in the works over the next few years. In the meantime, anyone with a little knowledge can tweak an existing device to better fit their particular needs or create a brand new toy that we might all benefit from. Maybe you’d like your dog to get rewarded on his bed anytime the doorbell rings. Maybe you need your horse to go stand at a certain location when the stall door opens. We can all benefit from each other’s imagination and creativity


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.

Training several dogs at once

Review by pro trainer

Product Review by Ken McCort Professional Animal Trainer


Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (MedicalMutts.com), a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (SmartAnimalTraining.com).

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