The High-Tech Dog Collar That Could Save Nana

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 16 2013 10:02 AM

The High-Tech Dog Collar That Could Save Nana

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A woman holds her chihuahua.

Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

From 2000 to 2030, the number of elderly Americans is scheduled to more than double. That means something like 72.1 million people who will require expensive care and medical attention. Our current care facilities will be overwhelmed; sugar packets will disappear by the truckloads. And though popular culture has assured us we’ll soon have robots to care for the gray-hairs, such technology is a long way off. Luckily, as with bomb detection and crumb removal, we may soon be able to enlist the help of canines.

Of course, we already know that dogs and other companion animals are good for the elderly. Studies have shown elderly with dogs require fewer doctors visits per year, they talk more to their neighbors since they have to take the animals for walks, and even those suffering from schizophrenia are better able to take care of themselves and interact with others after animal assisted therapy. (Animal-like robots have also been shown to improve quality of life for old folks.) To piggyback off of all these positives, researchers at Newcastle University in Britain think they can glean important information about elderly wellbeing by tracking the movements of their pooches.

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To test this, the researchers equipped a group of 18 dogs with high-tech collars containing accelerometers. (The group represented 13 different species ranging from miniature Jack Russells to Great Danes. The dogs varied in size, age, and sex.) The researchers then installed video systems in their owners’ homes so they could match behaviors to the information stored in the special collars. After a month, they were able to code movement patterns for 17 distinct dog activities such as barking, chewing, drinking, laying, shivering, and sniffing and recognize them with 68.6 percent accuracy without the use of cameras.

Initially, the study was undertaken to find a way to better care for dogs, since many of us work long hours and have to leave pets alone for extended periods of time. But now the researchers think the information can be used as an early warning sign for elderly who are struggling to cope. According to Nils Hammerla, a behavior imaging expert and one of the paper’s authors,

“A dog’s physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their wellbeing is likely [to] 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.”

To take it a step farther, I’d assume any successful commercialization of such a system would also find a way to code a distress signal for emergencies or, more grimly, for death on the part of the owner. (Let’s just go ahead and ignore some of the animal responses that might indicate such a thing.)

Since I’ve recently written about attempts to guide dogs by remote-control or by giving canines robot masters, let me just say that an accelerometer collar is a rather simple, seemingly effective piece of technology. And the best part of all is the elderly don’t have to learn how to use some fickle, newfangled gadget. All they have to do is continue loving their little sidekick. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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