Fitness gadgets are also big, likely because, as one recent survey found, more than half of American dogs and cats are overweight. A device called Kittyo allows owners to stream live video of their cats on a smartphone and, with the touch of a finger, make a laser dance around the room, keeping their cats entertained and active. A couple of companies offer what are essentially Fitbits for dogs; one device, called Voyce, keeps a record of a dog’s activity levels and other health indicators, which a vet can later review. Treadmills for dogs exist, too—though they’re nothing new. The first canine treadmills were invented in the United States in the early 1800s and used “dog power” to accomplish chores such as churning butter and grinding grain.
2. Canine Communications
At North Carolina State University, a group of computer scientists, electrical engineers, and veterinary behaviorists is developing a “smart harness” that collects a dog’s biometric data to help humans understand what the animal is thinking and feeling. The harness looks like a Kevlar vest for canines. It has sensors that monitor heart rate, respiratory rate, and other indicators, plus a microcomputer that can identify and interpret patterns in those biometric measures.
The smart harness is being developed for guide dogs, police dogs, and other service dogs. But David Roberts, a computer scientist working on the project, hopes a version will be available to the general public within five years. He says the harness could send owners alerts from their pets—a text message, perhaps, telling them that their dog is anxious or excited or scared. In a decade or two, the harness might be able to sync with a smart home, where sensors could triangulate information from inside the house (a lamp falling over in the living room, for instance) with data from the dog’s vest (say, a spike in heart rate) to tell owners why their dogs are feeling the way they feel.
The harness can also help people train their dogs. An app can make the vest vibrate in certain places to remotely command the dog to sit, for example, or turn left. The harness can even be preprogrammed to train a dog on its own. For instance, a speaker in the vest might play a recorded command, and sensors could then determine whether the dog obeyed. The vest syncs to a treat dispenser, so that good behavior can be reinforced.
Other attempts to communicate with dogs border on the quixotic. Con Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus of biology at Northern Arizona University and the CEO of a pet-technology company called Animal Communications, hopes to develop what he calls “a dictionary of barks” by collecting and interpreting videos of canine vocalizations. A Siri-like app could then, in theory, translate a dog owner’s (very simple) words into woofs and arfs, or translate a dog’s woofs and arfs into, say, English or Japanese. Owners could also use the app to interpret their dogs’ body language, which is actually the primary means of canine communication. The project, Slobodchikoff admits, has a long way to go.