What if Lassie were a quantified selfer? Granted, her barking saved many humans from a barn and forest fire, but researchers at England’s Newcastle University say that even more subtle changes in a dog’s behavior could clue us into problems in their owners' lives—especially if those owners are older, isolated, and might eschew Fitbits and other wearable tracking devices themselves.
Dr. Cassim Ladha and Nils Hammerla have designed a "collar-worn accelerometry platform" that can recognize 17 standard dog behaviors, including chewing, peeing, shivering, and sniffing. The system, which they presented at Zurich’s UbiComp conference last month, is based on the notion that if you measure a dog’s behavior over a long enough period of time, certain regular patterns emerge. If a dog shows a sudden decrease in activity, or isn’t being fed at regular intervals, it could be a sign that something’s out of whack at home.
"The interesting thing is a lot of parameters we measure could probably work for any animal with four legs. You could strap this thing to a horse, a mouse, or a cat even," Ladha says. "But the novel thing is because we’re closely linked to dogs in a social aspect—a dog relies on interaction, if you like—there’s a close companionship bond there. That’s what makes this system possible."
There’s also a bit of a creepy side to tracking humans through furry loyalists turned cybernetic narcs, though what they could inform on is debatable. But more importantly, if someone didn’t want to wear a personal tracking mechanism, wouldn’t a monitor attached to their dog be just as offensive?
"The nice thing about this surrogate sensor idea is that there’s an additional benefit for the owner. Measuring the benefit of the owner is a side effect of measuring the dog," Hammerla demurs. The collar is an opt-in system, and a person could always remove it, the researchers note. They don't see the collar as something to be prescribed by a doctor, and they have yet to actually test how well it can actually reflect a human’s behavior while attached to a dog’s scruff.
The idea for a "quantified self" dog collar came about as a result of Ladha and Hammerla’s other work with vulnerable populations. As electrical engineers and computer scientists respectively, Ladha and Hammerla have designed sensors for people with Parkinson's disease and responsive kitchen environments for those in assisted living facilities. Not all of their work focuses on home life, however—they’re also developing a wristband meant to track the skill growth of rock climbing enthusiasts.
Sheer curiosity also played a role in guiding the researchers toward tracking canines. "I’ve got my own dog. He’s called Gil," Ladha says. "I was curious to know what time the mailman comes."