Your dog could call you with this device that aims to ease pet separation anxiety

·3-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A computer scientist and her dog have created a device that allows dogs to make video calls to their owners, in hopes of easing separation anxiety in lockdown pets.

The system is called DogPhone and works when a pet picks up and shakes a ball fitted with an accelerometer.

The accelerometer will sense the movement and prompt a video call on a screen connected to the device.

The invention, believed to be the first of its kind, was created by Dr Ilyena Hirskjy-Douglas, from the University of Glasgow, her 10-year-old Labrador Zack, and colleagues from Aalto University in Finland.

Dr Hirskjy-Douglas, a specialist in animal-computer interaction at the university’s School of Computing Science, said she wanted the device to give Zack the choice to call her, rather than the other way around.

“There are hundreds of internet-connected ‘smart toys’ on the market that dog owners can buy for their pets,” she told PA.

“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.”

In a trial of the DogPhone, Zack called Dr Hirskjy-Douglas by picking up and shaking a call fitted with an accelerometer, prompting a video call on her laptop in her living room.

The results of the labrador’s interactions with a prototype DogPhone are the focus of a new research paper at the 2021 ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces Conference in Lodz, Poland. The prototype is still undergoing further experiments.

“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," Dr Hirskjy-Douglas said.

Zack was shown how the ball could be used to start a video call in several demonstrations, before being given the toy to play with for 16 days spread over three months.

The dog did make some “accidental” calls when he slept on the ball, but researchers said several of the calls involved Zack showing his owner his toys and approaching the screen, suggesting he wanted to interact with her.

Dr Hirskyj-Douglas responded using her phone to show Zack her environment, including her office, a restaurant and a street busker, during which the dog pricked up his ears and approached the screen.

She 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 of 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.

“One unexpected consequence of the experiment is that I sometimes found myself unexpectedly anxious when I placed a call to Zack and he wasn’t in front of the camera or he didn’t approach the screen.

“I hadn’t considered that this might be a consequence of the two-way communication that DogPhone creates, and it’s something to consider for the next iteration of the system.”

She said the device could help “pandemic puppies”, which refers to the thousands of dogs acquired during lockdown, to find new ways to deal with the stress of being home alone when their owners return to the office.

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