“How's your dog?” That's how a monologue by comedian George Carlin opened, but we won't go into that here. However, the question has some real value.
Experts at Newcastle University, in the United Kingdom say monitoring a dog's behavior could be used as an early warning sign that an older owner is struggling to cope or that his or her health is deteriorating.
These researchers are using movement sensors to track normal dog behavior while the animals are both home alone and out-and-about. Providing a unique insight into the secret life of man's best friend, the sensors show not only when the dog is on the move, but also how much he is barking, sitting, digging and other key canine behaviors.
By mapping the normal behavior of a healthy, happy dog, Dr. Cas Ladha, PhD student Nils Hammerla and undergraduate Emma Hughes were able to set a benchmark against which the animals could be remotely monitored. This allowed for any changes in which might be an indication of illness or boredom to be quickly spotted.
Project leader Ladha says the next step is to use the dog's health and behavior as an early warning system that an elderly owner may be struggling to cope.
"A lot of our research is focused on developing intelligent systems that can help older people to live independently for longer," explains Ladha. "But developing a system that reassures family and carers that an older relative is well without intruding on that individual's privacy is difficult. This is just the first step but the idea behind this research is that it would allow us to discretely support people without the need for cameras."
"Humans and dogs have lived together in close proximity for thousands of years, which has led to strong emotional and social mutual bonds,” Behavior imaging expert Nils Hammerla adds. "A dog's physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their well-being is likely reflect that of their owner and any changes such as the dog being walked less often, perhaps not being fed regularly, or simply demonstrating 'unhappy' behavior could be an early indicator for families that an older relative needs help."
How it works
Designed to provide an indicator of animal welfare in an age when dogs are increasingly left alone for long periods of time, the team created a hi-tech, waterproof dog collar complete with accelerometer and collected data for a wide range of dog breeds.
"In order to set the benchmark we needed to determine which movements correlated to particular behaviors, so in the initial studies, as well as the collars, we also set up cameras to record their behavior," explains Ladha.
Analyzing the two data sets, the Newcastle team was able to classify 17 distinct dog activities such as barking, chewing, drinking, laying, shivering and sniffing.
The team also assessed the system against different breeds.
"This had to work for all dogs," said Ladha, "so the challenge was to map distinct behaviors that correlated whether the collar was being worn by a square-shouldered bulldog or a tiny chihuahua."
"This is the first system of its kind which allows us to remotely monitor a dog's behavior in its natural setting,” Hammerla said. "But beyond this it also presents us with a real opportunity to use man's best friend as a discreet health barometer. It's already well known that pets are good for our health and this new technology means dogs are supporting their older owners to live independently in even more ways than they already do."