In the past kept as guards against intruders, dogs are now beloved family pets that their owners want to understand. The ‘Buddy and the Smiths 2.0’ project carried out by three universities develops technologies that allow dog owners to better understand their pet’s behaviour.
“The relationship between people and their pets has changed. Pets have become fully-fledged family members. Owners develop strong bonds with their pets and want to understand them better," says Assistant Professor (tenure track) Antti Vehkaoja from the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering at Tampere University of Technology (TUT).
Vehkaoja participates in the ‘Buddy and the Smiths 2.0’ project that explores and develops technologies that enhance communication between humans and dogs. The researchers are, for example, conducting physiological measurements and working to improve the interpretation of the resulting data.
Researchers at the University of Tampere are carrying out, for example, interviews and surveys to explore the views of dog owners as well as promoting networking between Finnish pet businesses. A research group based in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki collects measurement data on dogs and contributes to the interpretation of the data from the perspective of canine welfare and mental state. Experts in embedded systems, sensor technologies and physiological measurements from Tampere University of Technology are developing methods for data collection and analysis.
Researchers involved in the Buddy project at TUT are exploring methods for classifying the activity levels of dogs in order to reveal, among others, what dogs get up to when their owner leaves the house: whether they walk, run around or sleep. The researchers are also developing measurement and sensor technologies for measuring heart rate, heart rate variability and other physiological parameters in dogs.
“While we can basically use the same methods that were originally developed for measuring the activity levels and bodily functions of humans, there is one big difference: fur. For example, a regular hear rate belt does not work on dogs but must be equipped with special sensors,” describes Vehkaoja.
Will dogs soon be sporting smart collars similar to the wrist-worn activity trackers of humans?
“They very well may be. Advanced smart collars could help improve the wellbeing of dogs and also benefit veterinarians,” says Vehkaoja.
Technology is not enough to shed light on the behaviour of dogs, as it is also important to accurately interpret the data. Researchers from the University of Helsinki have invited volunteer dog owners to participate in studies where the emotional and physiological responses of their pets are measured when they are left alone. The results improve our understanding of separation anxiety in dogs and hold promise for new remedies.
The methods developed during the Buddy project can also be used to train dog owners.
“Obesity is one of the major health problems in dogs. As dogs cannot choose their diet or how much they exercise, technological tools can demonstrate to the owner how much their pet should eat and exercise to stay healthy.”
“Technology can also teach us more about active dog breeds and indicate, for example, whether dogs that take part in agility training get too excited and how long they take to recover from exercise.”
Separation anxiety and the ability of dogs to recover from agility training may sound like lightweight topics for scientific research but are actually attracting widespread interest right now. The Buddy project was launched in 2016 following Tekes’s Challenge Finland competition that seeks new business opportunities. Tekes, since then renamed as Business Finland, continues funding the research until the end of 2018.
“Pets are big business, and technology can provide the necessary competitive edge to achieve a leading market position. Technological expertise and research can be the keys for Finnish pet businesses to break into the international market,” says Vehkaoja.
In research, everything is interrelated. What helps dogs often helps people, too.
“One of our doctoral students is writing a dissertation about the monitoring of heart cell clusters. The signal processing methods that he has developed during the Buddy project can also be utilized in his human research.”