There is Something Beyond Barking

by Diane Blankenburg

I recently read an article about an interesting project at Georgia Institute of Technology called FIDO which stands for Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations. The general idea is to create a wearable device, like a harness or backpack, which contains both sensors and tools that a dog can operate with his nose, mouth, or paw.

I immediately thought of a question that was once asked by Richard Dawson on an old Family Feud episode—if your dog could speak English, what would you ask him to do? My spontaneous responses were rather egocentric—“bring me a beer,” “answer my phone,” “scratch my back,” “let your brother out to potty,” and so on.

Then my more rational, less self-absorbed side kicked in and I read the article with fascination, realizing the altruistic potential for this kind of device. It is being developed by associate professor of interactive computing Melody Jackson, research scientist Clint Zeagler, and contextual computing professor Thad Starner. Their goal is to better communication between dogs and humans, but the specific applications for service dogs are amazing. FIDO will make it easier for animals to communicate more clearly with their handlers (whether a disabled person or a police officer) by activating a sensor on their vest or collar that transmits a verbal command the handler can hear through an earpiece or see on a head-mounted display.

Many service dogs do their jobs by alerting humans to specific things or situations. A hearing assistance dog might alert a deaf person to important sounds by touching them to get their attention, then leading them to the appropriate place or out of harm’s way. A guide dog is trained to keep its owner from walking into obstacles so will stop if there’s something unexpected in the way. In many situations, it would be very valuable if an animal could communicate more specifically with his person. In addition to helping disabled people, FIDO could enable bomb-sniffing dogs to communicate with handlers remotely about what specific type of bomb they’ve encountered and rescue dogs could remotely alert a team that they’ve found an injured person.

Early studies have already shown that dogs can quickly learn to activate the device by biting, tugging, or putting their mouths nearby. But this is not surprising to those of us who have lived with dogs our whole live. We have always known that they were much more capable and adaptable than many give them credit. And once they have more of a voice, maybe they will be asking us for their version of a beer or a scratch.

Events that Help Animals

There’s a Cat for That Adoption Promotion  at Nevada Humane Society. Just like there is an “app” for everything, there is a “cat” for everyone. Through September 1, adopt an adult cat for free. Adult dogs are $40, kittens $35 (or two for $60), and rabbits $19. Shelter located at 2825 Longley Lane, Reno. Open 11:00am to 6:30pm daily and 10:00am to 6:30pm Saturdays.

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