Can Computers Train Our Dogs?

Researchers at North Carolina State University are on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we work and communicate with our dogs.
By: Victoria Schade
Can computers train our dogs?

The idea of using a computer to train a dog might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a harness that does exactly that. With a mix of integrated computer technologies and a healthy dose of animal behavior know-how, these researchers are on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we work and communicate with our dogs. And better yet, their discoveries might change the way our dogs communicate with us.

The Smart Harness, a modified version of a standard dog harness that’s fitted with a complex but small computer, can be altered depending on the study. Small sensors embedded in the harness provide researchers with information in three different areas: the canine participant (i.e. the dog’s heart rate and rate of respiration), the dog’s environment and communications between dog and handler.

How Does the Smart Harness Work?

The Smart Harness’ vibration motors are similar to those in cell phones that signal an incoming call, and function as a cue to signal direction to the dog. For example, a vibration on the dog’s left side signals the dog to turn left. This technology also enables a handler to give the dog directional cues at a distance. According to researcher John Majikes, each dog is already trained with visual (hand) directional cues, and is rewarded for correct responses to the hand signal and the vibration signal combined together. Eventually, the dog learns to respond to either a visual or vibration signal. The training is strictly positive, and the experiments are reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of North Carolina State University, which ensures the safety of the dogs at all times.

The Smart Harness was first tested as a supercharged addition to a dog’s already keen search-and-rescue abilities. Small cameras, GPS and microphones mounted on the harness provide valuable real-time site safety feedback to search-and-rescue teams, and more sophisticated equipment, like gas sensors or a Geiger counter (which detects radioactive emissions), can be added to the harness depending on the environment of the disaster. More importantly, the harness can evaluate the dog’s welfare during the search, transmitting information about his or her stress levels back to mission control, which enables handlers to keep the dogs safe.

In another test, the Smart Harness was measured against human dog trainers to test the accuracy of gauging when a dog went from a standing position to a sit. While the human trainers beat the computer when it came to determining when the dog moved into a sit — with 100 percent accuracy compared to the computer’s 96 percent accuracy —the computer was better at dispensing timely rewards, an important part of the training process.

One of the most exciting aspects of the study, however, is using the harness to measure a dog’s emotions. The team is using physiological sensors on the Smart Harness to learn how dogs respond to anxiety-producing situations, like thunderstorms or veterinary visits. According to Majikes, the researchers hope this technology will provide owners with more sensitive ways to recognize and respond to their dog’s stress responses.

The Future of the Smart Harness

Should dog trainers of the world be concerned that they’re going to be replaced by machines? While the potential applications of Smart Harness technology are far-reaching and exciting, the research team understands the necessity of the dog-human bond in the training equation.

“The canine-human relationship has to be acknowledged while the advantages of computers are exploited. For example, computers are excellent at timing and consistency but they do not have the relationship to canines as humans do,” says Majikes. “It would be a significant drawback to research if the computers were used in place of the canine-human bond. In our studies computers are used to aid in the canine-human communications but not replace the canine-human bond.”

The beauty of the technology is that it doesn’t render the handler unnecessary—it simply augments the areas where humans might not be as efficient, making the training process less confusing for our canine partners.

While it might seem like a daunting task for a dog to wear such a sophisticated piece of machinery, the dogs in the study (which comprised a number of breeds, including Poodles and Labradors) have quickly grown accustomed to the harness and what it represents, namely positive training and food rewards.

“We’ve been surprised and delighted by their enthusiasm and how much they teach us about effective human-dog-computer communication,” says Majikes.

Smart Harness image: courtesy North Carolina State University