Melody Jackson, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, professor Thad Starner and research scientist Clint Zeagler, have been working together on a project called FIDO (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations). They have been doing research on how dogs can communicate different phrases by activating sensors on a vest. The dogs are trained to identify sounds, objects, or situations. This includes disabled people, law enforcement, and even finding and helping people in natural disasters.
In order to fully participate in everyday life, many people with disabilities use a service animal. Dogs are most frequently used as service animals because they are easily trained. They can provide stability for a person who has difficulty walking, pick up items for a person who uses a wheelchair, prevent a child with autism from wandering away, or alert a person who has hearing loss when someone is approaching from behind. But why? Dogs are pack animals, meaning they look to the pack leader for direction. When they are instructed to do something, they follow without question. This makes them easily trainable and adaptable, as domesticated dogs look to their trainer or owner as their pack leader.
How they learn.
Dogs learn from us through a process called conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: classical and operant. Classical conditioning is responsible for involuntary responses. For example, when a dog salivates when a food is put in front of them. Operant conditioning is responsible for voluntary responses. For example, a dog sitting for a treat. The type of training used most in training service dogs is operant conditioning because this type of training shapes a dog’s voluntary behavior. In the FIDO project, it is important to teach the dog to reach and grab the specific points on the vest in order to talk; however, this can only be taught by positive reward training and aversive dog training. We can change a dog’s behavior by adding or taking away a reward stimulus. Most dogs are very food motivated and in the FIDO project you can see how effective it is as the longest time it took for one of their dogs to learn the vest was 30 minutes.
Accomplishments thus far
So far with their research and experiments, Jackson and her associates have made tremendous progress and have been successful in teaching the dogs how to distinguish between different objects, sounds, or situations. Using either a pull or a push, the dogs have been trained to communicate for certain reasons. For example, if the trainer asks the dog to “ask for help,” the dog is able to activate the vest to tell alert anyone in the area that someone is in need of attention. The dogs are really smart and it only took one of them 27 seconds to figure out how to activate the vest! With progress like this, who knows how far this technology could go!
Hi my name is Ed and I’m going to be talking about our project goals going forward. We have been doing special things at tech I don’t think anyone can deny that. We have some spectacular goals on the scientific level and, in terms of practicality, our goals are outstanding by any measure. Firstly, we want to further the research of how dogs learns and truly understand the breadth of their learning capabilities. Thus far they have been able to understand short commands and simple questions, but researchers have been asking can that go further. We want to decrease vest learning times for the dogs. 27 seconds was the shortest time for a dog to understand how the vest worked, but we are trying to increase usability for all service dogs, not just the best of the best. We also want to increase our team with the brightest and the best to keep on the timeline of finishing all research by December 4th. We know that these are ambitious goals, but this is tech, and we can do anything.
How you can join.
Joining is simple. First, go to http://www.research.gatech.edu/ and find the project page for dogs at tech. Once you find it, contact one of the research heads and ask if you can join. As long as you are interested, we want you to help! We are looking for a diverse group of students and majors to increase interest for research on campus.