The Tech Helping Dogs Learn to Talk With Humans

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Imagine you’re enjoying a pleasant stroll through the park when you hear someone say, “My owner needs your attention! Please follow me!” You look around and see no one; then you look down and see a dog staring up at you. You think someone’s pulling a fast one. But then the dog reaches around and his mouth tugs something on the yellow vest he’s wearing, and you hear it again.

“My owner needs your attention! Please follow me!” the dog seems to say again, looking at you plaintively and now beckoning with body language for you to follow him. You do, and he leads you to someone who’s having a severe allergic reaction, a seizure, or some other medical emergency.

cover of Doctor Dogs with dog wearing a stethoscope.

Adapted from: Doctor Dogs by Maria Goodavage. Buy on Amazon.

Courtesy of Dutton

Welcome to the new world of dog-human communication, where technology is allowing dogs to “speak” in ways we can easily understand when it really counts. If that same dog had run up to you Lassie-style and tried to get your attention without the voice, you might not have followed him. You might have reached down to pet him or thrown a pinecone for him while his person suffered alone nearby.

The vest is one of several emerging technologies a few universities are developing that could forever change the way working dogs (and probably pet dogs, down the road) can communicate with people—and the way people can communicate with dogs.

I wanted to see how these devices work, so I flew to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), the epicenter of this field in the United States. One of the first researchers I met was Sky, a supersmart border collie who happens to be the dog of Melody Jackson, director of the school’s Animal-Computer Interaction Lab and also director of the FIDO project.* FIDO focuses on creating wearable technologies as well as other ways to open the lines of communication between dogs and humans. Sky is the star tester and demonstrator of the devices produced by Jackson and her team.

*The acronym is more user-friendly and memorable than the actual name, Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations, which may have been conceived after a few beers among colleagues. The idea of talking dogs did happen over beers, actually.

When Jackson and Sky greeted me in the lobby of the university’s genius-filled Technology Square Research Building, Sky inspected me with his intelligent border collie eyes and gave me a few sniffs. If he could talk (beyond the talking vest, that is), he might have said something like this:

Barely remembers long division. Why is she here? Does not compute! Don’t let her upstairs!

But he couldn’t. So we went up to Jackson’s office. Sky was wearing a bright yellow Georgia Tech vest and a matching Georgia Tech collar. He had the school spirit, but this was not the vest I’d come to see. When we got to Jackson’s office, she rustled up a couple of prototypes of the talking vest.

“Working dogs are smart, and they have important information they need to tell their handlers or someone else. But they’re limited in what they can do,” she said, handing me a small yellow vest with the words “FIDO research team” on the side. “This is just the beginning of helping them communicate.”

She explained that when the vest is ready for use in the real world, the electronics will all be covered and disguised. But for now, as it gets tweaked and improved, the guts are exposed. The talking vest, in this bare-bones prototype, would get a dog stopped at any security checkpoint. On the top of the vest is a plastic-and-metal controller box about the size of a deck of cards. Out of this stream red and black wires and a couple of white conductor ribbon cables. Some of the wires end in a hard plastic tube that protrudes from the side of the vest.

Jackson asked me to touch the blue surface of the tube. If I were a dog, I’d just tap it with my nose. I expected to hear the slightly robotic female voice I’d heard on a video of Sky using one of the vests.

“My owner needs your attention!” a man’s voice announced with a slight Southern twinge. “Please follow me!”

“A man? A Southern man?” I asked, laughing in surprise. Jackson explained that during testing, users said they wanted their dog’s voice to match their dog’s gender. So they got one of the department’s male researchers to be the voice of Sky’s technology.

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