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Maybe Dogs Don’t Want to be Walked by a Drone

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I like playing the game, “What’s going to make people mad?”

Dogs wearing pantyhose = mass hysteria!

A dog being walked by a drone = not cool… but hmm… kinda cool?

Now that the robots have taken over our cars and our gameshows, they’re also moving in on our dogs.

Earlier this month, one innovative dog owner posted a video showing how he “walked” his dog remotely, with the help of a flying drone.

Walking Dogs With Drones from Jeff Myers on Vimeo.

If dogs got together at the dog park to discuss whether or not they welcomed their new robot overlords, I bet the dogs would be up in arms over the drone. Here’s why:

Drones Are Not People, And That’s Weird
Companion dogs are accustomed to being in the presence of an owner, especially when outside. Being walked on a leash by a known person could tap into the secure base phenomenon that I discussed in an earlier post, where being in the presence of a known figure of attachment helps dogs interact with their environment. It could be that because of the presence of their owner, dogs on leash are able to smell more things, look at more things, and really explore the world. A drone flying behind a dog can’t offer that sense of security.

A recent study out of Italy investigated dog attention to their owners while out on walks. They found that on leash, dogs weren’t all that attentive to their owners. “Almost half of them were never oriented to their owners and when they did, both the frequency and duration of their gazes were generally very low.” It is, of course, possible that dogs were attentive to their owners in other ways, such as the smell of their human companion, the sound of their footsteps, or the sound of their voice. Dogs are aware that they are with their owner (in this case physically attached to their owner via leash), which could help them attend to the environment.

When dogs were walked off-leash, however, the dogs looked back at their owners more often and for a longer period of time. This could also help maintain the secure base effect, something I would suggest drones can’t provide.

If we are to hand dogs over to R2D2, it’s worth studying in more detail how dogs behave around flying robots.

Dogs Need Attentive Owners
Unfortunately, Googling, “walk dog in car” pulls many hits, such as the 2010 headline, ‘Lazy’ Brit fined for walking dog from his car. Just recently, a man ran over his dog while walking the dog from the car. Walking a dog while driving can be characterized as animal cruelty, but a dog being walked by a drone, while perhaps not as extreme, faces similar challenges.

Both drone-walking and car-walking are marked by somewhat absent or inattentive handlers. With drones, news agencies are reporting that “The drone appears to both monitor where the dog is walking, as well as checking in on the dog to make sure it’s okay,” but I have no idea how a drone could respond to an issue in real-time, like a little boy the same height as your dog, unattended, with an ice-cream cone. How will the drone prevent a full-on ice-cream takeover?

Dogs need attentive humans. For me, walking a dog is like an intense game of Paperboy; I’m trying to attend to what the dog wants and is interested in while also being aware of our surroundings, particularly what’s safe and unsafe for the dog. These important parts of dog welfare are impossible for a drone to anticipate or address. A drone can’t look out for other dogs, squirrels, children of all sizes, cars backing up, break dancers, or stop signs. Clearly there are big safety issues. And as you probably already realized, a dog walked by a drone is a giant poop pile in the making.

I have to assume that Jeff Meyers, creator of this truly visually pleasing video, is well aware of the welfare risks of a drone-walked dog. Meyers apparently told Good Morning America that “the drone was just a prototype.”

But the point remains that humans are easily drawn to technology-based products for companion dogs. One reporter at a Canadian media outlet offers, “Despite the obvious issues, if this does become a reality it could really help out on many of those days when it’s raining or snowing.” Instead of testing what the technology means for dogs, we often think about how it’s cool or useful to us. As we increasingly apply technology to companion dogs, it’s worth stepping back and explicitly testing whether dogs derive meaningful benefits.

~~~

Photo: Ricky the cyborg dog by Dave Parker on Flickr creative commons.

Reference
Mongillo et al. 2014. Reciprocal attention of dogs and owners in urban contexts. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. In Press.

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. beyondzardoz 1:49 pm 06/2/2014

    Not so sure if I want a drone walking my dog but I could definitely see using it if it had a built-in pooper-scooper. Now that would be progress.

    Link to this
  2. 2. hkraznodar 5:39 pm 06/9/2014

    Don’t worry, drones are easy to down and any idiot that walks a dog with one will learn that it gets expensive to replace drones.

    Link to this

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