Woof woof, who’s there? DogPhone lets lonely dogs videocall their owners

Lonely dogs can connect with their absent owners on the DogPhone. Source: Getty

Dog owners everywhere will relate. That painful moment when you head to the door and your beloved pooch twigs that you’re leaving them home alone all day.

It’s even more heartbreaking for all those pandemic puppies out there, acquired during lockdown. They grew accustomed to having us on tap for company and sofa cuddles around the clock; only to have to now adjust to the harsh new reality of their humans returning to the office full-time.

But in fantastic news for caring dog lovers everywhere, a new prototype invention called the DogPhone allows lonesome dogs to videocall their owners.  By shaking a hi-tech ball that detects motion, the ingenious device connects to a computer and videocalls the absent owner on their laptop or screen.

The DogPhone – which witty Twitter users have swiftly re-named the ‘Dog and Bone’ – is the brainchild of the University of Glasgow’s Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas. She was inspired to create the device to help her 10-year-old labrador, Zack, with his separation anxiety.

A specialist in animal-computer interaction, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas came up with the idea because she believes that the current crop of “smart toys” on the market is far more geared towards helping dog owners than their pets.

“The vast majority of them are built with the needs of dog owners in mind, allowing them to observe or interact with their pets while away from home. Very few of them seem to consider what dogs themselves might want, or how technology might benefit them as living beings with thoughts and feelings of their own,” says Dr Hirskyj-Douglas .

“What I wanted to do with DogPhone was find a way to turn Zack from a ‘usee’ of technology, where he has no choice or control over how he interacts with devices, into a ‘user’, where he could make active decisions about when, where, and how he placed a call.”

So does the DogPhone actually work?

To make her canine device as appealing to Zack as possible, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas chose a soft ball as the form that her lab would most likely want to interact with, she explained in an article on the University of Glasgow website.

After several demonstrations of how the ball could be used to start a video call, Zack was given the toy to play with for 16 days over a period of three months.

While Zack made some “accidental” calls when he slept on the ball, researchers said several of the calls involved the dog showing his owner his toys and approaching the screen, suggesting he wanted to interact with her.

Dr Hirskyj-Douglas responded using her phone to show Zack her environment, including her office, a restaurant and a street busker, during which the dog pricked up his ears and approached the screen.

Dr Hirskyj-Douglas said: “Of course, we can’t know for sure that Zack was aware of the causal link between picking up the ball and making a call, or even that some of the interactions which seemed accidental were actually unintended on his part.

“However, it’s clear that on some occasions he was definitely interested in what he was seeing, and that he displayed some of the same behaviours he shows when we are physically together.

There was one consequence of the DogPhone experiment that Zack’s devoted owner hadn’t anticipated.

“I sometimes found myself unexpectedly anxious when I placed a call to Zack and he wasn’t in front of the camera or he didn’t approach the screen,” confessed Dr Hirskyj-Douglas, in an accompanying video:

So will we be able to get our paws on a DogPhone to stay in touch with our own pets anytime soon?

Perhaps not straight away. But the promising results of Zack’s interactions with the prototype DogPhone have led to further experiments, said the University.

“We’ve taken another step towards developing some kind of ‘dog internet’, which gives pets more autonomy and control over their interaction with technology.”

“More refined versions of devices like DogPhone, built backed by further research into what dogs find appealing and comfortable, have real potential to turn into a useful tool for animals, built around their needs and wants.”

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