You know how you instinctively reach for your pocket every time you feel your phone vibrating with a notification? Researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel have harnessed that same reflex to create what is essentially a remote control dog that receives silent commands and signals through a vibrating vest.
Dogs often partner with humans for dangerous tasks that include everything from search-and-rescue missions, to bomb-sniffing for police or the military, to helping law enforcement apprehend suspects. They’re obedient and easily trained to respond to auditory commands like whistles, specific phrases, and even hand signals. But a dog only responds when it can hear or see those signals, and oftentimes the environments where they work makes that very difficult.
As an alternative to handlers having to reach for a megaphone or rely on a loud whistle to remain in contact with a dog that’s ventured into territory too dangerous for a human, the researchers from BGU’s Robotics Lab upgraded a lightweight mesh canine vest with vibrating motors that touch the sides and back of the dog to provide varying levels of haptic feedback.
The dog used for testing the vest in the Lab was Tai, a Labrador Retriever and German shepherd mix, and he quickly learned to differentiate between different patterns, localisations, and durations of the vibrating motors which correlated to specific commands like “spin,” “down,” and even “back pedal.”
Because the vest is wirelessly operated from a remote, the dog is still able to receive these commands even when out of sight of its handlers, and the researchers say they found that Tai actually tended to respond better to the haptic cues than vocal commands, requiring about an hour of training to learn and master each one.
For search-and-rescue operations, where dogs operate in areas humans can’t safely go, the vest could also allow a handler to direct and guide the animal from afar through the use of a livestreaming camera added to the vest. But the research won’t only benefit dogs working in dangerous conditions.
It could improve the lives of animals that are blind, deaf, or slowly losing their senses, as well as pet owners who face physical challenges. It provides another way for humans and dogs to communicate and is arguably more humane than shock collars and other remote options.