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Technology helps service dogs 'talk'

April 18, 2016 (Photo Credit: Chris Kittredge)


Service dogs — dogs that have been individually trained to perform a specific task for individuals who have disabilities — are about to get a lot more high tech.

Melody Moore Jackson, who heads the FIDO (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations) project at Georgia Tech, has been working closely with Canine Companions for Independence, the country’s oldest supplier and trainer of service dogs, to come up with ways to use wearable technology to improve and expand what service dogs can do for their owners.

Enabling a dog to better call for help is high on their list.

“Medical alert dogs can tell their owner is going to have an epileptic seizure 30 minutes before it happens,” Jackson said. “They’re trained to back the person up against a wall so they don’t fall, and they lick their face to keep them conscious. But what if they could also pull a tab to send a message to the person’s husband, and to use a touch screen to call 911 and send their position via GPS?”

Jackson — creator and director of Georgia Tech’s BrainLab, whose mission is to research innovative human-computer interaction for people with severe disabilities — is developing a vest with such technology built in and working with dogs to understand how to execute all the right moves at the right time.


Picture a scenario in which a service dog is out in public with his owner, and the owner suddenly needs help that only another human can provide. How is the dog supposed to communicate that? Currently, a service dog really can’t. To address this, the FIDO team is working on a dog vest that has built-in audio. If, say, the owner has fallen out of a wheelchair and needs help, the service dog can approach a nearby person then pull or bite the proper cord on the vest to trigger a recording that says, “Excuse me, my owner needs your attention!”

As advanced as these improvements sound, learning them hasn’t been a challenge for the dogs, said Jackson, who has trained service dogs for more than 20 years.

“We have trained 15 dogs now, and we haven’t found one yet that couldn’t operate these sensors and understand what to do,” she said. “The first dog we trained took 27 seconds. The longest it took was 27 minutes. They get it.”

The FIDO team is also working on ways for the service dog and owner to better understand each other.

Service dogs are trained in intelligent disobedience, Jackson said. They stop what they’re doing and refuse to follow commands as a way to signal immediate danger. But what is the danger? Often the owner doesn’t know and the dog can’t explain. For example, what if a service dog is helping his blind owner down the street, then suddenly stops and refuses to move because the owner is inches from stepping in wet cement. The dog can signal, “Don’t walk any further,” but can’t give any explanation. With the technology the FIDO team is working on, the dog could pull a cord on their vest or nose a touch screen to give the owner more information about what the danger is and what the dog wants the owner to do to stay safe.

This is especially useful for the deaf, said Jackson. “Hearing dogs are alert to specific common sounds in their environments, but what if an unusual sound goes off and they need to let their owner know? What if it’s a tornado siren?”

The FIDO team has come up with “discrimination vests” with tabs or an area that a dog can touch with her nose, which triggers a text message to the owner explaining what the dog heard.

The group is using similar vests for bomb-sniffing dogs so they can go beyond indicating the presence of a bomb to identifying exactly what’s in the bomb, pulling or biting a specific tab or touching a spot on a screen to offer details about what they smell.

None of this technology is available to the public yet — it is still being tested and refined — but it shouldn’t be too long until those with service dogs have access to it, said Jackson.


Robot guides


Could service dogs one day be replaced by smart robots? Engineers at Georgia Tech are hard at work on a health-centric robot named El-E (pronounced Ellie). El-E can help the disabled by performing tasks like opening doors, and locating and retrieving common household items like a hairbrush, a bottle of pills, or a remote. Once the design is complete, the developers say they hope the robot can help people in wheelchairs, the elderly, those with diseases like arthritis and diabetes, as well as their caregivers.

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