Wearable Computer Teaches Dogs New Tricks

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Giving out dog treats for positive reinforcement really is a science.

Canine researchers recently unveiled a new computerized dog harness that knows exactly when to dispense those yum-yums, optimizing the training process, reports The Daily Beast.

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The comfy smart harness was created by assistant professors Alper Bozkurt, David Roberts, and their team at North Carolina State University. It contains sensors and tech that monitors a dog’s posture and body language. A deck-of-cards-sized computer transmits that data wirelessly, enabling autonomous training.

Bozkurt and Roberts are part of the multidisciplinary CIIGAR Lab, which focuses on canine tech. A dog wearing their latest harness goes into an enclosure that contains an automatic treat dispenser. When the harness senses the dog going from standing to sitting, a special algorithm in the harness triggers a beeping sound and releases a dog treat at just the right time, according to the university.

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“We use sensors in custom dog harnesses to monitor a dog’s posture, and the computer reinforces the correct behavior quickly and with near-perfect consistency,” Roberts said in a university press release. Their proof of concept study was published recently in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (abstract).

The trick was getting the treat-dispensing timing right. Too fast, and the system risked rewarding the wrong posture. Too slow, and the reinforcement wouldn’t work.

After honing their system with 16 volunteers and their dogs, the optimized algorithm rewarded correct behavior with 96 percent accuracy compared to 100 percent with a human trainer. The algorithm had the advantage of being more consistent about response time, though.

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Roberts, who has three dogs of his own, told the Daily Beast that he doesn’t think the harness system will ever replace human trainers. But he does envision it assisting with training shelter dogs so they can get adopted faster. His team also pictures their harness being used alongside human-directed training for service dogs.

Last time I was flying out of Denver, I happened across what looked like a bomb-sniffing dog drill. Trainers had a placed a series of suitcases on the terminal floor in an area between gates, and their harnessed dog was checking each one. It was a powerful reminder of what our furry friends can do.

Next, the NC State University team wants to use their computerized system to teach dogs specific tasks like safely and clearly marking when they detect bomb components or assuming a unique posture to get help for a diabetic human. I think they should get more than one treat for feats like that.

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