IWDA’s Cobb Ushering Working Dogs into the Digital Age

IWDA member and popular speaker Dr. Mia Cobb pictures the day when the digital age, which we humans are more and more involved in, enters the world of working dogs.

Cobb, who is a Research Fellow and Sessional Academic at the University of Melbourne (Australia), working mostly out of the school’s Animal Welfare Science Centre, sees digital innovation for working dogs, although still in its beginning stages, as having a great deal of potential.

“We’re just getting started with this, and we have a lot to do,” Cobb said during her address, “Digital Innovation for Workings Dogs” at IWDC 2021, available to IWDA members online in the IWDC 2021 Archives.

“What we need to do is also balance the welfare of the dogs as we are introducing AI (Artificial Intelligence) into the situations with working dogs,” said Cobb. “We want these interactions to enhance the dogs’ lives and comfort, not detract from them.”

Cobb described research she has done in conjunction with University of Melbourne colleague Dr. Sarah Webber, a Research Fellow in Human-Computer Interaction in the school’s School of Computing & Information Systems.

“Digital interaction can be with several areas,” Cobb said. We centered a part of our research on wearables, to see if they were effective with working dogs.”

Special collars with sensors were fitted to the dogs to see if they could be enticed to change direction and communicate with their handlers over a distance. Others took direction from a drone. If such systems can be perfected, handlers could communicate with search-and-rescue dogs over a specified distance.

Similar digital systems might also help in enhancing dogs’ moods, feeding, well-being and other responses in the future. Any digital implementation humans work with might fit with our canine companions, but there are limits.

“Again, as long as such enhances a dog’s welfare,” said Cobb. “There’s a lot we still don’t know. For instance, there is not a computer that can assess human-canine interactions.”

Cobb has appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) “A Dog’s World” series with host Tony Armstrong. The series explores the evolutionary journey of dogs and their senses in conjunction with how science is helping to keep them happy and healthy. One episode explored how some dogs, through breeding, have been more prone to debilitating health issues, delving into advancements in canine science that may help improve outcomes for affected dogs. 

By Jed Weisberger