I’d be lying if I said a dog-like robot opening a door for another dog-like robot doesn’t creep me out.
A full discussion of robot dogs is for another day, but for now, researchers studying the cognition and welfare of real dogs have a less menacing view of dogs and technology, particularly when touchscreens are involved.
Like you, animals can learn to interact with the content displayed on touchscreens, and their touch reveals something about their choice, which in turn reveals something about their mind. Animals both on and off land can be trained to use touchscreens — from gorillas and chimpanzees to dogs, cats, pigs, and even dolphins, among others. Touchscreen studies have explored how and what dogs categorize, their ability to learn by exclusion, and how they discriminate between different images. An added bonus is that, once a dog has mastered the touchscreen, humans can remove themselves from the study and can’t unwittingly cue the dog.
Using a touchscreen, a study by Müller and colleagues (2015) found dogs can discriminate happy and angry human facial expressions.
Researchers are now posing a new set of questions: are touchscreens beneficial to the user? Can touchscreens exercise the dog’s mind, in addition to serving as a window into it?
No better place to start than with older pet dogs, a group facing a unique set of challenges. Aging dogs can have reduced physical activity compared to their spry, younger counterparts. Less attention is often given to their learning, training and other mental activities; after all, who hasn’t heard the incorrect adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But dog minds are not meant to be inactive. Instead, “studies point to the fact that aging seems to be slowed by mental and physical stimulation, and thus stopping these activities might actually lead to faster aging in dogs.”
Lisa Wallis and colleagues at the Senior Family Dog Project at ELTE University in Budapest and the Clever Dog Lab, Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni, Vienna are developing a line of research to explore the effects of touchscreens on dog physiological, behavioral, and cognitive well-being, including how this type of engagement affects the dog-owner bond.
Their recent conference paper presented at the Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction gives us a look at how dogs learn to use the touchscreen and the direction of future research. Over the course of a number of sessions, dogs learned that when they nose-touch a particular image on the screen, a food treat pops out. At first, only a single image appears on the screen. Once the dogs reliably learn to nose-touch the image, they move on to discrimination training where two images appear simultaneously and only one image is “correct.”
One hundred thirty dogs over six years of age were trained to use the device. Only two were unable to grasp the task, and three displayed notable frustration, suggesting touchscreens are within the capacity of the majority of senior dogs. “The power of the touchscreen as a training tool is in its flexibility, reliability, controllability, and its ability to provide novel motivational experiences.” In other words, once dogs learn to use the touchscreen, the possibilities of what they can do with it are endless. (If your dog becomes addicted to Tetris, don’t call me.)
Wallis and colleagues will continue investigating long-term effects of touchscreen use, but it seems promising. “The positive association to the touchscreen is so strong that on several occasions when the dog was alone (the trainer had stepped out to answer the phone), and the feeder failed, dogs continued to work on the touchscreen with no reward until the end of the session.” Owners, even those initially skeptical, were impressed by the strategies their dogs used. They also observed that dogs slept soundly upon returning home from touchscreen sessions, highlighting that mental activity can have some of the same effects as physical exercise.
Further studies will explore the effects of long-term touchscreen use on dog personality, activity levels, measures of well-being, and influence on the dog-human bond. Stay tuned.
Wallis LJ, Range F, Kubinyi E, Chapagain D, Serra J, & Huber L. (2017). Utilising dog-computer interactions to provide mental stimulation in dogs especially during ageing. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction. Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.