“All this [existing] technology allows you to measure your pets’ steps or ring your pets or remotely give your dog food, but your dog doesn’t really have any choices,” said Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, of the University of Glasgow, and first author of the research used to create the device. She added giving animals choice and control had been shown to improve their welfare and wellbeing.
The research, which is published in the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery on Computer-Human interaction and being is presented at the 2021 ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces Conference in Łódź, Poland, reveals how Hirskyj-Douglas and researchers from Aalto University in Finland settled on a soft ball to create the device.
“Dog rang me but was not interested in our call instead was checking for things in his bed,” Hirskyj-Douglas noted during the testing of one iteration. Another entry reveals the potential pitfalls of the DogPhone. “Dog walking around wagging and then laying down. I was in a meeting so had to hang up quickly,” one record reveals.
The DogPhone underwent a number of iterations to ensure it had the right level of sensitivity towards movement – these were tested over 16 days by Hirskyj-Douglas and her nine-year-old black labrador, Zack. A diary detailing the calls between owner and pet suggests the latter did not always seem to know what he was doing – despite having been shown five times how the system worked.
Dogs have discovered a variety of ways to connect with humans, whether it’s a silent stare or a stirring bark. Researchers have developed a high-tech solution for dogs who are left alone at home: a ball that allows them to contact their owners using the ancient dog and bone method. The DogPhone is a soft ball that, when moved, transmits a signal to a laptop, which starts a video call and plays the sound of a ringing phone. The owner can decide whether or not to answer the call and when to hang up, as well as contact their pet – albeit the dog must move the ball to pick up.
The DogPhone considers both owner and the dog – and gives the latter a sense of agency, she said. “This is just one way to demonstrate that dogs can control technology,” said Hirskyj-Douglas. “We can build technology for dogs.” While a canine social media, or FaceBark, has yet to be created, Hirskyj-Douglas said she envisages a future where dogs could call each other. “There’s so many different possibilities that you could have,” she said.
The team say that many of the calls made by Zack – who was left alone for about eight hours during testing days – appear to have been accidents although they caution that may simply be the human perspective. “For example, when the dog triggered the system with their butt, this could have been deliberate and the dog’s unique way of triggering an interaction,” they write.
Hirskyj-Douglas said the technology could bring benefits to pets, in particular dogs who struggle with being separated from their owners – although she admitted the device had actually caused her some anxiety.
“It’s just giving a dogs a choice,” she said. “We may not understand the choice that they’re making. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a choice.”