The relationship between man and dog is unlike any other.
Many people dream of understanding what their dogs are thinking and feeling. Technology even lets us strap a camera on a dog’s head to see what it sees.
Soon, we may be able to talk to our dogs — but not exactly with our voices.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a high-tech dog harness that they say allows dogs and humans to communicate using a computer. The prototype harness, called the Cyber-Enhanced Working Dog, has sensors that collect and interpret dogs’ behavioral signals, and humans are able to send them appropriate commands.
“It’s a communication platform that is designed specifically to provide two-way remote computer-mediated communication between handlers and their dogs,” says David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and a co-author of a paper on the work.
“It’s never going to replace the human interaction with our dogs, but what it can do is help us interact with them in new ways,” he says.
The harness could be used for a variety of functions including search and rescue operations and basic training.
A small computer on the harness called BeagleBone Black monitors the dog’s movement, emotional state and outside environment. Information is wirelessly transmitted back to the handler, who can interpret it from a distance.
Sensors read the dog’s heart rate and body temperature to determine its emotional state, such as if the dog is stressed.
“We can start to characterize things like stress or distraction or excitement and help handlers become more aware of what their dogs are doing and why,” Roberts says.
Human commands are translated for the dog through speakers and vibrating motors on the harness. Roberts says dogs would be trained to respond to nearly 100 different signals in the same way they respond to voice and hand commands.
“We have integrated [sensors] into the harness in eight different locations,” he says. “This just feels like your cellphone going off in your pocket on vibrate.”
Roberts says the prototype is quite bulky at 4 pounds, and the researchers hope to make a smaller version to fit smaller dogs.
Additional devices, such as cameras and environmental sensors, can be added to the harness in order to customize it for various uses. The harness has a battery life of about eight hours.
Beyond police and military use, this device can be used on Seeing Eye dogs and to help average people more consistently and effectively train their dogs.
“One of the things dogs struggle with is humans are very inconsistent with how they reward dogs,” Roberts says. “So dogs can struggle to learn the boundaries and the rules when there aren’t consistent communications about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”
The device can also help handlers identify and reduce common stressors, Roberts says. Stress is one of the main reasons why service dogs are retired early.
Shortly after developing the harness, the NC State researchers teamed up with the Smart Emergency Response System project, which aims to integrate high-tech systems with search and rescue efforts.
“You’re never going to replace the human element of search and rescue,” he says. “What we’re really trying to do is help these dogs be safer and more efficient in doing their jobs. We are not enabling dogs to go into situations that are more dangerous than they were going into before.”
Roberts and his team hope to integrate the harness with drones and other robotic technologies. They plan to present a proposal to the National Science Foundation sometime next year.
Samantha Raphelson is a digital news intern at NPR.org. You can reach out to her on Twitter, where she is often tweeting obsessively about the Foo Fighters and music in general.