Speak, FIDO!

May 1, 2020
ROB FELT

Imagine you’re out for a walk with your family when a strange dog approaches. The dog isn’t aggressive, but it seems to want something because it nudges you with its snout, and barks.

What you don’t know is that this dog is trained to help a person with a medical condition. Around the corner, the dog’s owner has collapsed, and the dog has run off to find help. That’s you! But how can the dog make you understand what’s wrong? It’s not like dogs can talk.

Now imagine that the dog is wearing a high-tech vest. There’s a rope attached to the vest, and the dog uses its teeth to tug on it. This causes an audio recording to play something like “My owner needs help,” which makes you understand that you should follow the dog to its owner.

It might sound like science fiction, but this is the goal of the FIDO project, an ongoing study at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

ALL BITE, NO BARK Schubert demonstrates the bite sensor on a FIDO project vest.

ROB FELT

New Tricks

Dogs can be trained to do many tasks. For example, some dogs are trained to fetch help for people with epilepsy, a condition that can cause a person to lose consciousness and twitch uncontrollably. Allergy dogs can smell a life-threatening allergen nearby, and diabetes dogs know when their owner’s blood sugar is dangerously low.

FIDO stands for Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations. The team’s goal is to make it easier for working dogs to do their job, and researchers believe wearable technology will help. “Technology can give dogs so much more power as they help their humans,” FIDO director Melody Jackson told TIME for Kids.

WOMAN’S BEST FRIENDS FIDO director Melody Jackson poses with her dogs Sky and Schubert.

ROB FELT

FIDO researchers designed a vest with a tiny computer built in. It can call 911, send a text to a family member, or play an audio recording, among other things. The next step was to figure out how a dog would activate the computer.

The team made several sensors and put them on a prototype. There was a touch sensor (it’s similar to the touch screen on a smartphone) that a dog taps with its nose. Another had a rope for the dog to tug with its mouth. There was also a proximity sensor (think of a touchless faucet in a restroom) that a dog activates with a movement of its snout, and a sensor that activates when a dog bites on it.

“Then we tested them all with all types of dogs—everything from a border collie to a basset hound to a poodle,” Jackson says. In the end, the dogs were able to activate the vest using every sensor the team had designed. Plus, Jackson notes, “We were able to train all the dogs to use all the sensors in 27 minutes or less.”

In the real world, vests could be customized for a dog’s job. For example, police dogs on search-and-rescue missions near water could use a tug sensor instead of a touch sensor, which fails when wet.

Work in Progress

For now, FIDO’s technology is only being tested in the lab, but Jackson is in talks with several companies that are interested in manufacturing the devices to make them available to people who need them. She hopes that soon, service dogs will wear high-tech vests on the job. “How many dogs can use cell phones?” she says. “Well, ours can, and that means they can save a person’s life.”

TIME OUT Dr. Susan Ryan takes a break with Wynn, a service dog in training.

COURTESY SUSAN RYAN

Best Medicine

Wynn is a year-old Labrador retriever who’s training to become a service dog. Her handler, Dr. Susan Ryan, is an emergency doctor in Denver, Colorado. While they’re in training, service dogs go everywhere with their handlers, so Wynn often hangs out in a hospital office while Ryan works. When COVID-19 hit the Denver area, hospital workers felt anxious. To cope with their anxiety, many of them started visiting Wynn regularly. Ryan says taking a break to pet Wynn helps manage stress. “We get anxious when we think about the future,” Ryan told TFK. “Wynn helps us return to the present.”