Dog Talk: Woof, are you there?


Ringo (left) is all about eye contact but Rusty uses the classic whine to communicate. Photo: Krishilla Devi Thivyakumar

The pandemic has brought many animals and people closer together. Now we're coming out of seemingly perpetual lockdown, animal lovers are agonising over going back to the office, either part-time or full-time because pets have become used to our company.

While web streaming video allows owners to check in on their pets during the day, it's a one-way system whereby the human has to check in.

Now an exciting journal paper suggests the launch of the DogPhone, an interactive ball that will allow your pet to video-call you.

Authors Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and Roosa Piitulainen and Andrés Lucero from Aalto University, Espoo, Finland, have imbedded a sensor within a ball. When the ball is shaken, it triggers a video call from a computer.

The DogPhone has been created and tested, and will hopefully soon be available. It's super exciting but it prompts all kinds of questions, the most important of these is, if your pet calls you, will you know what your dog is saying? In fact, how good are we at understanding basic doggy communication?

Krishilla Devi Thivyakumar, a teacher living in Selangor, is close to her two rescues, Ringo, nine, and Rusty, 11. Like many pet families, they spent the pandemic at home together and so they talk all day long.

Krish has heard of the DogPhone and here she shares her take on dog-human communication and what calls may look like

"We all live together, myself, my parents and the dogs," Krish explains. "The dogs spend most of their day indoors with us and, like most people, we lock the grill."

Acting as door butler is a classic pet owner activity. So how does that work?

"When Ringo wants out, he just sits and gives us The Look. He is all about eye contact. He looks at me and then his eyes dart to the door. It's very clear what he wants.

"Rusty just whines at the door. "They're in and out during the day, but at around 11pm, they go out for the night. We all know the routine, so that's easy to figure out. The dogs get up, move towards the door and that's it. Mind you, if it's wet or there are fireworks, they decide to stay in. Again, that's easy to work out."

Then there are walks, a major dog social activity because it is special bonding time when dogs and their humans spend quality time together, from the dog's point of view.

Dogs need exercise to stay healthy, but more than that, going on a regular walk several times a day also allows them to explore via sight, sound and smell what other dogs, cats, and people are around. Dogs love to explore, it makes them happy, and when we are with them, they see it as a super fun activity: like rolling a trip to the mall, restaurant and cinema all in one.

Unsurprisingly, Rusty and Ringo are keen on their fun.

"I work and I'm doing my Masters too so dad usually takes the dogs out," Krish says. "Rusty sits and acts miserable. We took a while to figure that message out. Ringo is much easier to understand. He does the darting to the door, with the looks, in a way that's just clear."

Food is another happy subject. Dogs are just like us in their joy of food, and as Rusty and Ringo are pampered, they have a lot to say on this subject.

"They know where their treats and kibbles are," Krish laughs. "If they want a treat, they go to the treat cupboard. Rusty will sit there and whine, and Ringo will dart and show. When they want their dinner, they sit by the pantry in the kitchen. There's no question about what they're after!"

Dog barking is a super-hot controversial topic because pet lovers believe they are adept at understanding a huge variety of barks, but studies haven't really gone into this topic very much.

Many dog lovers suggest that dog barking has developed over time purely because dogs are living with us. This explains why other canine species like wolves, for example, typically don't make a lot of noise, and appear to be limited to two to four types of barks.

Pet dogs, though, have barks that signal joy, danger, playfulness, anxiety, pain, anger and more. Some dog owners can even tell the difference between their pets warning against regular "intruders" like the postman and the dustbin collectors versus an unknown "intruder" such as a courier.

Krish recognises a variety of barks from Rusty and Ringo, but notes they express themselves uniquely.

"Rusty's happy bark is short bursts but Ringo mixes barks and playful growls. When they're giving us warning, Rusty uses long and drawn-out barks with a low growl that carries. Ringo uses incessant sharp barks."

It suggests that if dogs do get to call in, each dog will be expressing their needs differently, so we're going to have to be on the ball, so to speak.

"Rusty wouldn't bother, he's a chill kind of dog," Krish muses. "He'd be ringing for emergencies only. But Ringo has attachment issues so he'd be on it all day long, just to say he's there."

Sounds just like toddlers!


IT and connecting to your pet

There are lots of tools on the market, and many more are becoming very affordable.

Internet of Things (IoT) devices link objects to smartphones and PCs. One of the most fun applications are interactive toys linked to treat dispensers that allow you to play with your pet while you're not at home.

Typical interactive treat dispensers are shaped like balls or rollers that can be pushed around easily by your pet. Some also have remote controls, just like the toy cars we used to play with. They might be independent, but smart ones are connected to your phone or PC via an app.

The best of these products offer a variety of noises and flash various lights. This means young dogs will be attracted by the sound, and old, deaf dogs will see the lights.

Whenever you want to treat your pet, you can make the dispenser beep or flash a light before shooting a treat out. You can also programme the device to dispense a treat when your pet has tossed it, played with it for a few minutes, rolled it around – in other words, to reward your pet for being active.

As the dog learns, you can up the challenge by inventing games. For example, if you have a smart dog, you can teach it to pick the ball up and take it to another room, put it in a basket and other tricks.

Note: Most work on dry treats. In our climate, treats have to be fairly solid and not crumbly as gunk will block the device. Also, a good design will allow for different treat sizes so you don't have to worry too much when stocking it.

Also, interactive toys are fairly new, so expect teething problems. You will need a solid Internet connection. Also, repairs may be tricky. Finally, not all pets like to play with toys. So if you can, have a test run with a friend first.


Adopt Me

Photo: Sherrina Krishnan-LeyowPhoto: Sherrina Krishnan-Leyow

Lara is eight months old, healthy, vaccinated and spayed. She's named Lara after Lara Croft because of her active and adventurous spirit. This little girl loves people, other dogs, and cats too. She is very intelligent, energetic and constantly exploring. She's an escape artist who sneaks out daily to see her best friend, a cat who lives down the road. Lara is looking for a home with lots of walks and where she is a full member of the family. Interested adopters, please call Sherrina in Petaling Jaya, Selangor (+6-012-2026 384).

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