Dog training is a time-consuming task that takes patience, consistency, and reward. For pet parents who just want to teach the basic obedience exercises to their pets, it can take several months to cover them all thoroughly. To train a service dog such as a guide dog can take years.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a solution that could not only cut down the amount of time it takes to train a dog, but has potential applications for greater canine services. Scientists in the Veterinary Medicine and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments collaborated to produce a paper describing the first-ever robotic dog-training device. The training aid, which consists of a custom-built wearable canine harness with an attached computer that triggers the release of a treat, has been shown to be very successful in detecting and rewarding correct behaviors.
Sensors in the harness accurately detect the dog's body posture and body language. When the proper movement is identified, such as sitting, the computer on the harness emits a beep and a treat dispenser releases a reward. Through extensive trial and error, the harness was able to detect the correct posture 96% of the time. While a human trainer had better accuracy (100%), the computer was able to reward the dog quicker and with greater consistency. When you are training a dog, one of the most important aspects is the quick identification of the correct behavior and delivery of the reward. The harness-computer combination was better at doing this than the human trainer.
One specific aim for this work is to decrease the amount of time it takes to train service dogs. Other than improving the dog-training process, this system has a number of other potential uses. For instance, the snug-fitting harness can help researchers better understand canine body language and provide very precise feedback on a dog's body posture in response to different environments. It could also improve the way that service dogs help their humans. A service dog could be taught that they should perform a very specific behavior when their pet parent needs help, for example if they're having a seizure. That posture would then result in a request for help being sent by the on-harness computer. Another advantage of this system is that it will allow handlers of working dogs, such as search and rescue dogs, to recognize signs of physiological stress in their dog like a rapid heart rate or an increased body temperature.
This technology is exciting, but it does have limitations. The harnesses must be custom-made for each dog's size, so it will be expensive. Service dog training is already costly and this will be an added burden that may not fit budgets in spite of its effectiveness. The cost will also make it unattractive to pet parents. Another disadvantage is that it removes the human-dog interaction that's involved in dog training and that's important in socialization. It's very likely that the main use of this equipment will be in monitoring the safety of working dogs in the field and teaching scientists and researchers more about canine body language and behavior.
Photo ©North Carolina State University