By Dr. Becker
You can probably guess a lot of what your dog is trying to tell you just by gazing into her eyes or observing the wagging of her tail. But have you ever wished your dog could actually talk?
Technology known as FIDO, or Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations, may make this a reality, at least for service dogs, search-and-rescue dogs and police dogs.
FIDO, an ongoing research project at Georgia Tech's Animal Computer Interaction Lab that was founded by associate professor Melody Moore Jackson, Ph.D., aims to improve communication between humans and their canine partners.
While working dogs can communicate a variety of sometimes life-saving messages to their handlers — from alerting a rescue team to a person's location in an avalanche to letting a hearing-impaired person know their doorbell is ringing — they are limited in how much they can "say."
The FIDO team has developed wearable technology that is integrated into assistance dog vests in the form of sensors. Dogs are then trained to activate the sensors (by biting, tugging or using nose gestures) to communicate different messages.
In 2014, the researchers wrote, "We were able to demonstrate that it is possible to create wearable sensors that dogs can reliably activate on command and to determine cognitive and physical factors that affect dogs' success with body-worn interaction technology,"1 and their accomplishments have only continued since.
Technology Allows Dogs to Communicate Life-Saving Messages
In the CBS News video above, you can watch as Jackson works with a border collie named Sky, who has learned to tap certain sensors in response to words like "help" or the sound of a fire alarm.
Upon hearing that her owner may be having a medical emergency or needs to be alerted of a fire alarm, Sky activates the appropriate sensors, on her FIDO vest or a touch screen, to get her message across.
The messages, in turn, may be sent via text message to her owner or another family member or used to dial 911 and communicate a person's location.
In training sessions, Jackson said Sky learned how to correctly activate the sensors in under 30 seconds. Among other dogs, the longest it took was about 30 minutes — still an impressive feat.2
FIDO technology also allows dogs to pull a sensor on their vest that plays a recording such as, "My owner needs help, please follow me," which could be life-saving for someone with epilepsy, for example. It could be game-changing for police and search-and-rescue teams as well.
According to Karen B. London, Ph.D., certified applied animal behaviorist and certified professional dog trainer, in The Bark:3
"Although dogs are often trained to search for multiple types of drugs or explosives, they are limited in their ability to communicate the details of their finds to their handlers.
It can make a big difference to everyone's safety if the dog can let a handler know that the bomb is a stable type or an unstable one that needs careful handling. This vest can allow a dog to share more specific information.
This group developed a vest that allows a dog who has found anyone trapped after a natural disaster to activate a sensor with a message for that person to hear. The message lets the trapped individual know that help is on the way.
Work is underway to develop a vest that allows a dog to activate a sensor that sends GPS coordinates to a handler. This allows the handler to join the dog, who does not have to leave the person who has been found.
That could be lifesaving for a child who is hiding or for a person who is unable to move for whatever reason."
Will FIDO Be Available for Companion Animals?
Jackson, who created the FIDO device in partnership with colleague Thad Starner, Ph.D., an expert in wearable computers, said their primary goal is to make FIDO available to the working dogs who need it, and it's unclear whether they intend to produce a similar device that could be used for companion pets (with adequate training).
Others, however, have tried. In 2013, The Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery (NSID) claimed to be developing a device called "No More Woof" that would translate EEG signals from your dog's brain into human language through a speaker.
The crowdfunded device has not yet materialized, however, leaving contributors confused and angry.4 On the contrary, the FIDO device is the real thing in terms of helping working dogs communicate valuable details to their handlers.
In terms of figuring out what your pet dog is thinking, however (such as how she really feels about your pet cat or whether she prefers beef or chicken), for now you'll have to be content with observing her body language and other communicatory signs.
If you have a particular burning question to ask your dog and you're open-minded, you can also seek the help of a reputable animal communicator.