Caspin, who works as an assistance dog for Wallis Brozman, can tug the rope on his vest to activate a voice that asks a stranger to help his handler.
Wallis Brozman suffers from dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that requires using a wheelchair full time and impacts her vocal cords, so she speaks very softly.

Six years ago, Canine Companions for Independence matched her with a service dog, Caspin, and he’s helped her in countless ways. But it can be a challenge when she’s in public and Caspin tries to get her help by barking.

One day, for example, she was stuck in her wheelchair for hours at a dog park, because her calls for help couldn’t be heard, and Caspin’s barks mingled with the playful yelps of other dogs.

Now, thanks to technology being developed by the FIDO (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs With Occupations) Project at Georgia Tech, Caspin has a new trick.

At Brozman’s command, he runs to the first person he sees and tugs a rope on his vest. That activates a speaker that says in a strong, Southern male voice, “Excuse me, my owner needs your attention.” (Play the audio below to hear the message.)

“People really pay attention to a 65-pound black LabGolden Retriever mix with a Southern accent,” Brozman says. “That speaker application was great, because I can’t yell, and it was easy enough for me to tell him that.”

That’s just one of many potential ways the FIDO vest can take what service dogs can do to the next level.

Capitalizing on What Dogs Know

FIDO is a project led by Dr. Melody Jackson, who has an expertise in computer science, has been a longtime volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions and has an office mate who’s a pioneer in wearable technology.

All of those things came together for the vest, which is still being developed but is in testing with Brozman and the Georgia Tech police department. The custom vests combine common canine behaviors, such as biting, touching or pulling, with sensors that allow the dog to communicate with their owners or others. 

“These are things the dogs already know how to do. We just have to show them how to do it on something that they’re wearing,” Dr. Jackson says. You can see how Caspin’s vest works in the video below.
Consider a dog who assists someone who has epileptic seizures. The dog may normally hold the person up and keep them conscious. But with a FIDO vest, he could bite a part of the vest to trigger a sensor that would dial 911 — and a recording on the vest would tell the operator that his handler needs help.

Dr. Jackson gives an example of a military K-9 in Afghanistan. At a time when his platoon wasn’t actively searching for explosives, the dog lay down and refused to move. But because of the situation, his handler didn’t realize the dog was trying to warn him of a land mine and was indicating so by lying down. The land mine exploded, severely wounding the handler. If the dog had a FIDO vest, Dr. Jackson explains, he could have used it to tell his handler he was really alerting him to danger.

“We’re hoping this will literally be lifesaving,” she says. “It will literally be much safer for the person and the dog to have the vest.”

Solving Challenges With Dog Work

Dr. Jackson has been working closely with the California-based Canine Companions for Independence, and has talked with handlers of military dogs, police dogs, medical alert dogs and others to find out what they need most — and how technology could help.

Paul Mundell, CEO of Canine Companions, sees lots of potential for the vest to solve challenges and make dog work more effective — particularly for people who are deaf or quadriplegic.

A hearing dog, he explains, is taught to recognize six to 15 significant sounds. The dog is trained to nudge the handler until he gets her attention, and the person says or signs “What?” The dog then guides his handler to the source of the sound, such as a crying baby or the doorbell, and lies down.

“There are a couple that are really difficult — like a smoke alarm or a tornado alarm. We don’t want them to be leading the person into a fire,” he says. “There, they just do a down at the handler’s side. That can be ambiguous though. If you can imagine an unambiguous way for the dog to signal the person, that is the best scenario.”

He says that with the vest, the dog could activate a sensor that would send the person a text message that says, “smoke alarm” or “tornado siren,” perhaps on their smart watch, to tell them of the danger.

“That’s a clear and unambiguous sign of what’s happening — in some ways it’s a much quicker sign of what’s happening,” Mundell says. “It could be a real boon to us to have a vest where, if the dog touched or bit something, there were two to four unambiguous signals it could text that the person could read.”

Helping Handlers Communicate

For a quadriplegic person, communicating with the dog can be difficult. In those cases, Mundell says it would be beneficial for the person to have a button on their wheelchair or a way for their mouth stick to activate a vibrational motor in the vest in order to give the dog a command.

“When the dog feels the vibration, the dog thinks OK, I return to the handler, or I pick up what’s on the floor and return it to the handler,” Mundell says. “You could build a whole chain of behaviors. … That makes working with a dog a lot easier for a whole class of our graduates.”

The assistance dog organization and Georgia Tech are working through trial and error to determine what the dogs can understand as far as sending them signals through a tone, light or vibration.

Dr. Jackson says training the dogs to use the vests has been simple so far.

“We’ve trained about 11 dogs to use various sensors, and the longest it took to train any of them was 27 minutes — the shortest was 27 seconds,” she says. “The dogs are brilliant.”

Brozman says it took only two or three training sessions to help Caspin use the device successfully, and she sees “such application for this vest for service dogs.”

Now it’s just a matter of getting it into the right design and working with a partner to put it on the market.

“We hope it’ll be out for the public in a couple years,” Dr. Jackson says. “We’ve done the hard part. We’re still in the process of refining them. We’ve learned an awful lot about what dogs can do.”

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