Newcastle University research shows how dogs could help the elderly

Monitoring the mood of a pet dog could be used as an early warning sign that an elderly owner is struggling to cope, a new report has claimed

Bridie McCarron age 83 with Rab the Border Collie
Bridie McCarron age 83 with Rab the Border Collie

Monitoring the mood of a pet dog could be used as an early warning sign that an elderly owner is struggling to cope, a new report has claimed.

Researchers at Newcastle University placed movement sensors on dogs to track their behaviour and identified 17 distinct activities, including chewing, barking, sitting and digging.

This allowed them to map the normal behaviour of a healthy, happy dog, which means any changes can be monitored and could indicate an issue with their owner.

The team created a hi-tech, waterproof dog collar complete with accelerometer and collected data for a wide range of dog breeds that gives an indicator of the pet’s welfare.

The research is part of Newcastle University’s drive to help older people live independently in their own homes for longer, something it has developed a centre of expertise in.

The scientists wanted to develop a system that reassures family and carers is well without intruding on that person’s privacy.

Nils Hammerla, part of the university research team, said: “Humans and dogs have lived together in close proximity for thousands of years, which has led to strong emotional and social mutual bonds.

“A dog’s physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their well-being is likely to reflect that of their owner.

“Any changes such as the dog being walked less often, perhaps not being fed regularly, or simply demonstrating ‘unhappy’ behaviour could be an early indicator for families that an older relative needs help.

“This is the first system of its kind which allows us to remotely monitor a dog’s behaviour in its natural setting.”

The team of academics, who presented their findings at the 2013 UbiComp conference in Zurich, created a hi-tech, waterproof dog collar for the study.

Dr Cas Ladha, who led the study, said: “A lot of our research is focused on developing intelligent systems that can help older people to live independently for longer.

“But developing a system that reassures family and carers that an older relative is well without intruding on that individual’s privacy is difficult.

“This is just the first step but the idea behind this research is that it would allow us to discretely support people without the need for cameras.”

A range of dogs was used for the study, as the team needed to map distinct behaviours that correlate between different breeds.

Mr Hammerla said: “This is the first system of its kind which allows us to remotely monitor a dog’s behaviour in its natural setting.

“But beyond this it also presents us with a real opportunity to use man’s best friend as a discreet health barometer.

“It’s already well known that pets are good for our health and this new technology means dogs are supporting their older owners to live independently in even more ways than they already do.”

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