Dog-Smart Homes: Improving Accessibility for Mobility Assistance Dogs

This project started in 2013 as a collaboration between the ACI Lab and UK Charity Dogs for Good (D4G), to address challenges faced by mobility assistance dogs and their assisted humans. The project is led by Dr Clara Mancini and ongoing. Luisa Ruge started her doctoral research on the project in October 2017, supervised by Dr Mancini and Dr Rachael Luck.

Overview

In the UK, 7 Charities train and provide thousands of dogs to assist people with physical disabilities, waiting lists ranging between two and four years. Mobility assistance dogs are trained to undertake daily activities that people with disabilities find difficult or impossible (e.g. opening or closing doors, operating light switches, traffic lights or elevators). They also help their assisted humans cope with stigma, discrimination, disability hate-crime, psycho-emotional disablism, poverty and powerlessness that often accompany disability.

In spite of their fundamental social role, mobility assistance dogs have to operate in environments that are inconsistent with their evolutionary characteristics, facing challenges that for human workers would be deemed unacceptable. Training each dog takes several months and costs several thousand pounds, but 50% of dogs in training fail to qualify, resulting in investment losses for the charity, and those who qualify need to be retired around age 10, resulting in repeated emotional trauma for assisted humans and dogs alike. This has been attributed to the kind of equipment the dogs have to operate.

To improve the welfare, training and performance of mobility assistance dogs, we are collaborating with Dogs for Good to develop a range of production-ready wireless controls, whose design is consistent with the sensory, cognitive and physical characteristics of dogs, and that can be purchased and retrofitted to make domestic and public environments more accessible to mobility assistance dogs and their assisted humans. Our findings so far suggest that our prototype controls can significantly improve the dogs’ working conditions, training times and performance.

As a first form of in-the-wild evaluation, in 2015 we installed some of our prototype switches in one of the buildings on The Open University campus, to enable a PhD student and her mobility assistance dog to independently access the building. We installed four switches, two to open two security doors which the student and the dog were regularly using to access their office, and two to operate the lights near the student’s desk. The switches have been used since and are still in operation.

Further readings

For more information about the research underpinning the project, please refer to the related publications below:

Mancini, C., Li, S., O’Connor, G., Valencia, J., Edwards, D., 
McCain, H. (2016). Towards Multispecies Interaction Environments: Extending Accessibility to Canine UsersProc. Third International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction, ACI’16, article no. 8, ACM Digital Library.