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Goodbye woofs and meows, hello doggie translators: Here's the future of being a great pet owner

Could tech help you converse with your pet? Hear more in our new podcast.

Image: Shutterstock/TheJournal.ie

FUTURE STORIES IS a monthly podcast from TheJournal.ie and Volkswagen. This month, we’re looking ahead to the future of owning a pet – and the ways tech could change how we interact with our precious pooches and felines.

Tracy Tough hears from a bioacoustic researcher developing an algorithm that can decode dogs’ barks, so humans can understand what their pet is trying to tell them.

And do you ever wonder what your furry friend is up to when you’re not around? A new era of interactive cameras will let you monitor them remotely, play with them and even speak to them from any location you like.

Plus, a celebrity pet invasion: Tracy speaks to a UK pet agent who represents Instagram-famous cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, lizards, and more – including one Wexford chihuahua with over 50,000 followers.

Here in Ireland, one in three households own a dog, and one in four own a cat, according to 2017 research. But we don’t just “own” our animals. Many of us see our pets as friends or loved ones – in fact, 96% of participants in an Aldi survey this month said they considered their pets to be a member of the family.

This humanisation of pets has been happening for decades in many low-key ways – buying gifts for pets, choosing organic or premium pet food, pets sleeping in their owners’ beds – but it’s getting more developed. And the more we consider our pets to be humans, the more invested we become in their wellbeing.

24-hour monitoring

“It’s how I keep in contact with my pet when I’m at work,” says one pet owner who works a 9-5 job and purchased a PETCUBE camera to help her check in on her cat Jess during the day.

The camera has been a lifesaver – literally. While at work one day, the woman received an automated text telling her that Jess’s movements were out of character. Checking in on the app, she saw that the cat had become trapped inside a carrier bag and was struggling to breathe.

“I ran home from work,” she recalls.

She was inside the front door, limp. Luckily I was able to get the bag off, but if I hadn’t had the alerts I would have been at work for another seven hours… the camera saved her life.

You can hear the full story in the latest episode of Future Stories.

Decoding the barks and growls

And even when you’re close to your pet, tech could soon make it a lot easier to ensure they get the care they need. That’s thanks to science being developed by people like Tomas Faragó, a bioacoustic researcher working to “translate” dogs’ barks so that humans can better understand them. As he explains:

We have bark recordings from different social situations and we have taught an algorithm to differentiate these barks.

Dogs don’t have words, so they’ll never be able to converse at the level that humans do. But they do experience complex emotions, just like us.

The more data Tomas collects, the more he can use machine learning to organise the various barks, growls and whines into a type of emotional language which humans can understand.

It’s early days yet, but Tomas predicts that the idea of dog owners being able to purchase a translating device for everyday use could be a reality within “four to five years.”

Hear more on Future Stories. The new episode is live right now:

Source: Journal Media/SoundCloud

Listen to it on Soundcloud here. Or click-through to be taken to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Audioboom.

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