Taking a ‘dog’s-eye-view’ informs new technologies to help assistance dogs

02 July 2014

New technologies have been designed to help assistance and medical detection dogs that take the canine perspective into account. The prototypes are being presented at the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition this week.

All designers recognise the importance of the ‘user experience,’ but what happens if the user isn’t human? Dogs with important jobs such as assistance, cancer detection and medical alert dogs, all have to interact with technology in order to carry out their tasks, but this technology is designed for humans, not dogs.

Dr Clara Mancini and colleagues at The Open University’s Animal-Computer Interaction Lab have taken a new approach to try to support working dogs by designing new technology informed by the best available knowledge of the animals’ needs and preferences.

Dr Mancini said: “Good design starts with the user. Dogs see and interact with the world in a completely different way to humans, so we want to design technology that takes this into account. Every worker needs the right tools and this applies to dogs just as much as humans.”

Working with the charity Medical Detection Dogs, Dr Mancini and colleagues have designed a piece of equipment that can help medical detection dogs when they are detecting cancer samples in a clinical setting. The use of dogs for detecting prostate cancer from urine samples is currently being explored as a non-invasive alternative to current diagnostic tests such as the PSA (prostate specific antigen) test.

The equipment consists of a metal pressure pad below the tube which holds the sample. When a dog detects cancer in the sample it puts more pressure on the pad which is connected to a computer. This computer then records the level of pressure the dog exerts which can indicate the level of confidence the dog has and – over time - the data can be analysed to take into account a particular dog’s personality (i.e. whether the dog is more eager or more nervous affecting how strongly they touch the pad).

Dogs assist people with physical disabilities to help with everyday tasks such as opening and closing doors. However, tasks such as these require extensive training because door handles are designed for humans with opposable thumbs and buttons for automatic doors and fire alarms are coloured red and green, which for dogs are difficult to distinguish between. Dog trainers also have to train the dogs to distinguish between different shapes, whereas they seem to recognise different sizes more intuitively.

Working with the charity Dogs for the Disabled, Dr Mancini and colleagues have therefore developed prototype buttons which can be installed in the home to operate doors, lights or household appliances. They are coloured blue and yellow which dogs can see more clearly and range in size rather than in shape.

The ACI team think this has the potential to dramatically reduce the time needed to train working dogs. With this technology dogs can be trained with the set of buttons which can then be installed in the house, minimising the amount of relearning the dog has to do when it goes to a new home environment.

Dr Mancini, Head of the Animal Computer Interaction Lab at The Open University said: “We are aiming to develop these technologies into products that can be easily sourced. People who live with assistance dogs are already contacting us to ask when they might be able to buy dog-friendly technologies for their homes.

"They recognise both the immense contribution that the dogs make to their life and the many challenges that the dogs face, and are eager to help their canine companions in return. When we ask someone to work for us we become responsible for their welfare; providing them with appropriate support not only improves their performance, but it also helps us fulfil our responsibility by improving their welfare. I think this applies to animals just as much as it applies to humans.”

Visitors to the Exhibition will be able to watch the dogs using the prototype technologies, and attempt to perform tasks wearing special dichromatic goggles which imitate what dogs can see and boxing gloves to imitate paws to give them a ‘dog’s-eye-view.’

The work of Dr Mancini and colleagues at the Animal-Computer Interaction Lab will be on display at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition ‘Technology for Dogs’ exhibit which is presented by The Open University in collaboration with University of Lincoln, Medical Detection Dogs and Dogs for the Disabled.