What does your dog do when you aren’t home? Sleep? Gaze out the window longing for the sexy little Lhaso across the street? Or, relevant to today’s post, does he wish he could call and talk to you wherever you are? Maybe a quick text?
That’s the premise of a study that NYT journalist Christine Chung told me about, (not the texting part!) in which a device was designed to let dogs call their owners and see them on a screen. You can read about it here, in an article titled “Forming the Dog Internet“. I’m stretching it by calling it a study, because it involved one dog, and one person. The bulk of the work, the real experiment I’d say, was done trying to create a device that would give a dog the ability to contact their owners, and see and hear them on a computer screen. The authors argued that although there are multiple devices that allow people to remotely keep track of their pets (Petchatz), or to keep the animals engaged while they are alone (Puppod), none of these devices truly give animals agency, or control over the communication. What if they want to contact their owner rather than wait for their owner to contact them? Don’t call me, I’ll call you?
The bulk of the article is what the authors went through to find a suitable device that would attract the dog and be usable as an interactive device. I give them credit; they spent a lot of time figuring out that a soft, squishy ball-like thing would be the best alternative (for this particular dog at least), and figuring out how to set its sensitivity so that just the right amount of movement, caused by the dog, would turn on the screen. What’s unclear is whether the dog actually learned to use the device, and as a trainer I was itching to give them feedback on how to train the dog to use it.
There are two threads here that we could follow; I’m happy to go down either one with you. First, the whole world of companion animal technology is one I personally know little about. Sorting out communication between three species (human, dog, and sheep) feels complicated enough for me. However, I am in thrall about all the work that’s been done with dogs interacting with computer screens (or ACI, Animal-Computer Interaction). Dr. Karen London in Bark magazine had an interesting article a few years ago about dog-computer interactions; here’s the study it was based on. So we know that dogs at least can respond to computer screens, but not that they necessarily understand who they are looking at if a picture of their owner appears. We know even less about how a dog feels if it sees and hears its owner talking through a screen.
That’s the second thread I want to go down. Not can our dogs use this kind of technology, but would it make them happy to do so? Would our dogs be happier if they hear us talking to them through a computer screen? I’m not so sure. I’m not saying they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, I just haven’t seen anything to convince me that dogs are happy to hear their owners voice if it’s disembodied from their body. My experience with dogs and phone calls is that most dogs ignore their owner’s voice on the phone. The others look interested, and then equally confused, if not distressed. I can just imagine some canine version of: Where is my human? What happened to them? What nightmare is this that I can hear them but they’re not here? After all, many people were afraid of telephones when they first came out, thinking they might make you deaf, or crazy, or that the world could listen in. (Not an unreasonable fear, since we all had party lines when I was young.) I wonder if hearing a voice without a real live body would be like a science fiction horror show to a dog.
On the other hand, I like the idea of giving dog’s agency. And perhaps there is a way that this could help dogs with separation anxiety? Surely we could teach dogs to associate our voice coming out of a machine with us, and find a way to make that soothing? Or interesting? And yet, the behaviorist in me thinks about all the dogs I’ve seen who got overstimulated when home alone because the squirrel/other dog/cat/bird/whatever drove them crazy when they watched them through the window. What made these dogs happiest was to settle down in a quiet corner and go to sleep. And so I wonder: Do interactive/remote toys also over stimulate dogs, or do they give them something to do to relieve the boredom? Would knowing they could “call” their owner help them settle down, or agitate them? You know that my answer to everything is “It depends,” so no doubt different dogs would react differently. But which dogs would it be good for, which not? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, my ears are pricked.
My dogs are lucky. They are never left more than five hours alone in the house (and that rarely now). We crate them because Skip and Maggie play rough enough that it makes me nervous leaving them out alone. They go into their crates cheerfully enough (thank you Greenies), and Skip often chooses to lie in his crate when we’re home. I’m not inclined to bother them when I’m gone, because I’m pretty darned sure they are sound asleep, and that feels like a good thing.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The novel is progressing! Fifteen chapters and a pretty thorough plot, although there are some loose ends to be tucked in. How does the protagonist know that X was the one who did Y? Why did the police arrest A instead of B? And where is the missing dog, anyway????? There’s months and months of work to go, most of the 15 chapters were written earlier, I’ve just been editing them down to the bone. (The most fun part of writing without question.) The next chapters, well over half the book, have to be written from scratch, always the hardest work for me. But I’m having a great time working on it, and I’m beginning to believe that I might actually pull something off that resembles a mystery novel. Wheeee!
Here are some photos from the farm: The fall color in the photo below is now long gone, this is from a few weeks ago. It was just before sunset when the sun was glowing on the trees above the field. Lovely.
But the skies were crazy blue (truly, it seemed unreal) this last weekend when I went up to check on the sheep. It’s the first weekend of gun season, so I had on my bright orange parka. The cones in the field (to help the dogs and I practice aiming for gates) fit right in.
I sat on the ground and just hung out for awhile (no dogs), which seemed to confuse the sheep. Eventually I couldn’t resist giving the dogs verbal cues (Walk Up, Come By), and then laughed as the sheep looked all around for the dogs, who, remember, weren’t there. You could just hear the internal ovine conversation: Do you see a dog? I don’t see a dog? Where is he? But I finally stopped teasing them and sat quietly for awhile, and they seemed as happy to loll in the sun as I was.
Did I mention I miss color in winter? Here are my Peter Max tulips, which are colorful enough in real life but I started playing with adjustments in Photo and came up with this. Fun what you can do with some grocery store tulips on top of your freezer in the pantry.
There not much color here, but I love these seeds and seed pods in my Japanese Anemones.
Maggie watched me out the window while I was wandering around with the camera. She’s perched on her favorite place, the arm of our living room couch. After loving how adorable she is (her new name is The Gal Gadot of Border Collies, because she is beautiful and off the chart athletic), I noticed how dirty the window is. Oh, whoops. I considered deleting the photo, but in the spirit of Dog Owner Full Disclosure, decided not to. I’m hoping you laugh like I did, rather than shake your head in disgust. Looks I’ll be cleaning the window soon.
Mr. Skip, aka Mr. Big, is responsible for all the nose marks on the window. He loves to look out the window. Here he is in the dining room, giving me his usual “What?” look.
Many of you will be reading this the week of Thanksgiving. I hope that, no matter your circumstances, you find a lot to be thankful for, no matter how small or fleeting. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for so much of my life, and you, my thoughtful, respectful, and wise readers, are one of the things I’m grateful for. Lucky lucky me.
Please chime in with your thoughts about remote interactions with our dogs, cats, birds and . . . ? Can’t wait to hear what you think.