Dogs supporting people with disabilities have important jobs to do. Not only do they help people with disabilities manage their everyday activities, they also provide companionship and comfort to their human owners. In the UK alone over 7,000 people rely on assistance dogs, with waiting lists of up to four years.
It is therefore important that these dogs are enabled to do their jobs well and that they work they do is compatible with thier own wellbeing. The Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) team, led by Dr Clara Mancini at The Open University’s School of Computing and Communication, developed dog-friendly controls which have improved the performance and experience of dogs supporting people with disabilities.
ACI researchers have developed wireless and wired dog-friendly controls for assistance dogs with important jobs, in collaboration with leading UK Charity Dogs for Good and supported by Pet Plan Charitable Trust. The controls allow dogs to assist their disabled human partners by enabling them to easily operate doors, lights or household appliances by pushing especially designed buttons with their noses or paws. These buttons not only make it easier for dogs to assist humans, they also dramatically reduce the time needed to train assistance dogs. The dogs can train with a set of wireless buttons which can then be installed in the home, minimising the amount of relearning the dog has to do when he or she goes to a new home, thereby improving the animal and human experience of rehoming.
Animals have been involved in machine and computer interactions for a long time, but the animal perspective is usually lacking in interactive technology designs. The Open University’s ACI team puts the animal perspective at the centre of their work, studying the interaction between animals and technology in their habitual environments to inform an animal-centred design process.
The team designs technology to support animal welfare, activities and human-animal relations and develops animal-centred methods enabling animals to participate in the design process as legitimate stakeholders and co-designers.
The Open University’s Technology for Dogs with Important Jobs program was one of 22 nationally selected for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2014, visited by some 15,000 people. The exhibit was one of six selected for podcasting and one of three selected for the Exhibition’s press conference. The programme was also selected for the Edinburgh International Science Festival in 2019. The Festival was visited by over 18,000 people and the OU exhibit attracted huge interest from the public and the media including BBC1 Scotland.
A wireless version of the controls designed by PhD student Luisa Ruge was recently given to a group of people who live with mobility assistance dogs for evaluation and feedback, and the team is now in the process of preparing a revised version for commercialisation.
Another version of the controls optimised for wired applications has been installed at the premises of the restaurant Robotazia, in the Theatre District of Milton Keynes, where the devices are enabling diners’ mobility assistance dogs to operate the doors of the restaurant’s accessible toilets. The ACI research team are hoping to install the door-opening controls at the premises of other businesses and public services in Milton Keynes, to make the UK’s flagship smart city a ‘dog-smart’ city too, and thus making it more accessible and inclusive for all.