Innovative ‘DogPhone’ Helps Pet Owners Tackle Separation Anxiety

December 29, 2021
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A new device that allows dogs to start video calls with their owners could hold the key to addressing separation anxiety, researchers believe.

With millions working remotely during much of the coronavirus pandemic, many pets have grown accustomed to having their owners at home all the time.

However, as workers across the country begin heading back to the office, some pets find it difficult readjusting.

To address this, a resercher from the University of Glasgow has created the ‘DogPhone’, which enables owners to remotely keep in touch with their pets.

DogPhone works by allowing a pet to pick up and shake an accelerometer. When it senses movement, a video call is initiated through a laptop. The owner can call also call their pet, with the animal using the same system to answer.

The innovative project is part is a collaboration between Glasgow University’s Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas and her 10-year-old Labrador, Zack, alongside colleagues from Aalto University in Finland.

Dr Hirskyj-Douglas is a specialist in animal-computer interaction at the university’s School of Computing Science, who examines new ways to enrich pets’ lives through technology.

Speaking about the new device, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas says: “There are hundreds of internet-connected ‘smart toys’ on the market that dog owners can buy for their pets, from fitness monitors to remotely-controlled treat dispensers. Smart toys for pets are expected to be a 20 billion dollar industry by 2025.

“However, the vast majority of them are built with the needs of dog owners in mind, allowing them to observe or interact with their pets while away from home. Very few of them seem to consider what dogs themselves might want, or how technology might benefit them as living beings with thoughts and feelings of their own.

“What I wanted to do with DogPhone was find a way to turn Zack from a ‘usee’ of technology, where he has no choice or control over how he interacts with devices, into a ‘user’, where he could make active decisions about when, where, and how he placed a call.”

In creating the DogPhone, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas had to pay close attention to the kinds of objects that Zack likes to play with, and the textures he enjoys touching.

After considering the possibility of a stick or a stuffed toy, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas chose a soft ball as the form Zack was most likely to want to interact with.

Once this was established, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas began a three-stage experiment to refine the device. In the first stage – lasting two days – Zack made 18 calls, half of which were ‘accidental’, made while Zack slept on the ball as a result of the accelerometer being too sensitive.

However, during calls when Zack was awake, he would often show Dr Hirskyj-Douglas toys that they often play with together and approach the screen, showing that he wants to interact.

After further tuning of the accelerometer in the second phase, the third phase – lasting seven days – saw Zack make 35 calls.

While many seemed accidental, there were examples of significant interactions, with Dr Hirskyj-Douglas showing Zack different environments – met with ear-pricked approval.

Speaking about the development process, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas said: “Of course, we can’t know for sure that Zack was aware of the causal link between picking up the ball and making a call, or even that some the interactions which seemed accidental were actually unintended on his part.

“However, it’s clear that on some occasions he was definitely interested in what he was seeing, and that he displayed some of the same behaviours he shows when we are physically together.

“More refined versions of devices like DogPhone, built backed by further research into what dogs find appealing and comfortable, have real potential to turn the internet of things into a useful tool for animals, built around their needs and wants.”

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