Not the Beach Boys’ classic but Israeli Researchers develop vibrating vests to wordlessly communicate with dogs
By David E. Kaplan
Tel Aviv is arguably one of the most dog-friendly cities in the world and walking down any street in the city it is easy to see why. I often wonder, “Who is taking who for the walk?”
In fact, the municipality of Tel Aviv says that the ratio of dogs to residents is 1:17, meaning there is one dog to every 17 people in Tel Aviv!
It is not uncommon to see dogs not only in restaurants and cafés, but sometimes even sitting at the table among diners. Most cafés are very diligent to make sure that Tel Aviv dogs are treated properly often serving dog biscuits and treats and ensuring there is a doggy dish of water available outside for man’s best friend to rehydrate along with their owners.
There are also designated dog beaches in Tel Aviv where they are permitted to run off leash, such as in the north at the Hilton Beach, as well as in the South at Alma beach – both a dog and dog-lovers paradise.
While for Tel Avivian’s it’s all about love and companionship, for the most part throughout the world – and for over the millennia – canine owners and handlers have trained hounds for a variety of functions, such as: herding, tracking, hunting, detection, search and rescue, security, as well as the more personal services to their owners like like guiding, hearing, and seizure response.
Traditionally, the training focuses on the dog learning to obey commands and cues VOCALISED from an owner or handler. Now, a research team from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has developed an entirely new way to train canines using haptic – related to the sense of touch – vibrations.
Haptic technology – also known as kinaesthetic communication -refers to any technology that can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user.
The word haptic, from the Greek: ἁπτικός (haptikos), means “pertaining to the sense of touch” and simple haptic devices are common in the form of game controllers, joysticks, and steering wheels.
Incorporating haptic technology, the BGU team developed a mesh vest ‘tailormade’ for hounds to wear. The vest contains four small, painless vibrating motors that operate via remote control and according to PhD student Yoav Golan, who is leading the research, “a dog wearing the vest will learn to associate different vibrations with different commands…one vibration will cause the dog to turn around, while another will cause him to come to you.”
Golan says their study – called “Vibrotactile Vest for Remote Human-Dog Communication” – was the first to explore haptic technology and dog commands, and its findings were presented at the World Haptics Conference on July 12 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. The conference covered leading scientific findings, technological developments, algorithms, and applications in the field.
‘Touch’ Of Genius
To date, communication with working dogs that perform tasks ranging from search-and-rescue to bomb detection, remains mostly “visual and audial” with little use of technology.
It should be self-evident that in certain scenarios, non-vocal communication would be preferable, such as in security situations where handlers need to operate quietly and hence the need for discreet contact between dog and handler.
Another situation could be where search-and-rescue dogs are working in rubble at a distance from the handler, and possibly even out of sight.
This technology will also help reconnect with run-away pets or with communication by speech-impaired handlers.
The research results showed “that dogs responded to these vibrotactile cues as well or even better than vocal commands,” said Professor Amir Shapiro, director of the Robotics Laboratory within BGU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
The haptic vest would prove ideal when vocal communication is not possible, such as in a noisy environment or with an owner or handler who has a speech disability. In these scenarios, using a haptic vest is easier and more effective “than clapping when alerting a dog,” they say.
Who’s The Boss?
Actually Irrelevant. A dog typically bonds with its handler and favours its voice when given vocal commands. However, the haptic vest offers what Golan referred to as “handler independence.”
As the vest’s remote control requires only a ‘neutral’ touch of a button, the dog will not be dependent to a particular handler: “Anyone could press the button, and the dog would still complete the task,” assures Golan.
While the test was conducted with five handlers on Golan’s own dog – a Labrador and German Shepard mix named “Tai “- future research will test the haptic vest technology on different breeds, ages and training experience.
Professor Shapiro, who has been fielding calls since the announcement of the study, says he wants people “to use the vest wisely.”
Interest really spiked following the National Geographic article, he says, specifically from companies “that utilise service dogs for individuals with PTSD or speech disabilities.”
Watching with fascination the video clip, ‘Tai’ turned, backed up, lay down, and came, all on command responding to remote-controlled vibrations in the vest. And it made no difference that it was not his “boss” giving the commands.
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!