Can technology help our pets lead better lives?
The idea of talking animals is part of Amazon’s Shop the Future concept. It is mainly focused on dogs, though in principle it could be adapted for other domestic animals. The core of the technology would be a collar that monitors how the animal is moving. When it recognises from those movements that the animal wants something, the “speaking” part of the collar activates. For example, when the dog scratches at the back door, the collar might say: “I need to go out!”
Although Amazon’s intentions in announcing such a product may have been more headline-grabbing than thought-through, they do raise the more serious issue of how well we communicate with our pets. Despite all the time pressures imposed by modern lifestyles, many of us still want pets in our families. Learning to understand a new dog takes time, but many new owners seem woefully unprepared for this, doing no research into what dogs’ needs are before buying one.
Misreading of a dog’s feelings can have serious consequences. Much attention has been given to so-called dangerous dogs, especially when one attacks an innocent passerby, but what the headlines obscure is that many of the most serious attacks are by family dogs on the children they live with. Parents must ensure that their dog is trained to behave around children, and likewise to teach their children the right way to approach a dog.
From the dog’s perspective, the most useful technology might be one that recorded their feelings not when their owners are nearby, but when they aren’t. Every day, millions of dogs are left alone while their owners go out to work: most of them hate being left alone. Some bark, some howl, some pace around; some simply lie down and appear to rest, but their skyrocketing stress hormones betray their anxiety. Dogs can be trained to cope with being left alone, but few owners are aware that they can do this. For those who accept this responsibility, technology that reassured them that they were succeeding would be a boon.
Dr John Bradshaw is an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences and an author