As we all shelter in place around the world, we can’t forget that our animals our pets are being sheltered in various ways.
Sometimes they’re isolated with us.
Sometimes they’re at shelters that are more isolated now because so many of the staff, the volunteers, even the visitors they rely on for socialization and often for behavioral training, are not able to access them as much if at all in some cases Now what?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring in some machines some intelligent technology to help the overtaxed veterinarians and behaviorists who are trying to deal with an awful lot of animals with a staff that’s now often torn apart desperately and not able to access.
The nexus of care that we’ve had in our shelters, that’s what’s going on at a company called Companion is doing something very interesting with pet training robots .And I know what’s in your mind right now.
You’re thinking about robot, one of these hands and arms that can throw a ball or something.
It’s not like that at all, John Hunter is here.
He is the CEO of companion and we’re also joined by Lani Seung, who is a veterinarian and one of the very, very elite cadre as I understand it of board certified Behaviorist as well, let me start with you, John so we can get an idea of what we’re talking about.
What is this robot you guys make for pet behavior and training?
[LAUGH] I’m cringing when you talk about
I know robots the worst word, isn’t it?
Yeah, we like to talk about it.
Just a simple box of automation.
It’s a simple device that fits in your home if it’s in your business that can engage your animal with positive reinforcement and do some really wonderful things when it comes to training and also health and wellness.
Like what we’re ultimately really interested in, is training all the basic obedience commands and other commands that help you form a really great bond with your animal and then also help shelter animals get adopted and stay adopted.
Now what does it do?
A it’s a box people are thinking something that looks humanoid, it doesn’t what are the key technologies you’re using inside there to allow it to do its thing?
So we’re using the same sensors that are in your phone to text, Detect your face like for face ID.
It’s little sensors that can attack that are called 3D depth sensors.
And what they do is help us understand what your dog’s doing in a room.
And the very first thing we do once we start interacting with your dog Make sure your dogs having fun and the teacher dog that our device is fun to play with.
And once we know that your dog is really comfortable and having a good time we look for the behaviors that you want to train, whether it’s your dog sitting, whether it’s your dog coming towards the device, but if your dog staying, once we see those behaviors, we reinforce them with positive reinforcement with treats.
Treats, that’s what I was going to say.
Let’s get right down to it, treats.
[LAUGH] Exactly, we bribed your pet, we bribed your companion.
And you do the bribing in an interesting way, delivering those treats.
Yes, well, we think we have the world’s highest performance treat dispenser, which I never thought I’d be able to say in my career, and we also have what we think are, I should say, probably some of the industy’s healthiest dog treats
It’s pretty important to us.
And we use those dog treats to teach your dog essentially that it is controlling our device.
Our devices always opt in for your animal.
Your dog can always wander away through the house or through another area of the boarding facility, wherever your dog may be.
has to come towards us to want to play then it has in it will learn over time, that every time it performs these behaviors, it gets reward.
And then once your dog really has that down, we actually transition your dog from just doing those behaviors to doing those behaviors to the cue of your own voice.
So it’s your voice saying set your voice saying down your voice saying come So you’re using the sensors to see what the dog is doing.
What’s interesting, you were telling me earlier is that sometimes the machine can start doing the training without there being a human getting involved in a routine.
The machine can start autonomously noticing what the dog is doing and rewarding it if it’s a desired behavior.
Yes, it’s exactly right.
So we do it There’s a couple different ways to do dog training I used to help teach some of the training classes at the ASPCA, super fun folks.
But you can either learn behaviors so if you wanna like lure your dog into a sit, you might kinda hold a tree up and watch it kinda go back on its conscious.
You can also capture a behavior And that’s what we do, which is we wait to capture when your dog is in that specific pose we’re looking for.
And the really fun thing is that dogs do all these things naturally.
There’s no forcing the dog to try to Do something unnatural, your dogs naturally going to want to lie down, your dogs naturally gonna want to stay your dogs naturally going to come over to the camera at some point.
And so all we’re doing is just watching your dog and rewarding for the things that you’d love to do.
Now why Lonnie, tell me how this fits into the world of behavior and training, your expertise.
When you first heard about this What did you think?
Did you have skepticism or did you have a lightbulb moment or did you have a little of both?
I think I had a little bit of both because you know, I think the concept is solid right?
But it’s really important that they execute it appropriately, right?
You know I understand the concept.
I would love to see a machine that could do it and John’s company has proven to me that they can do it.
I mean it’s great and I think it’s gonna be immensely helpful not just for shelter animals but, Animals all over the world.
So tell me where I can actually help.
I understand it can do some parts of training and maybe not necessarily with a trainer having to be there all the time.
Does it give you a virtually larger training workforce?
For sure.
I mean, I think that you know, you have to keep in mind, dogs can learn, but there’s also a certain skill set, an owner needs to have a right and a time commitment, right.
And if you don’t have that skill set, even though you’re trying, you’re just not very talented and training The the unit can certainly help you, so that your dog has the foundation behaviors much more solid, and then you can take over from there.
So the foundation is there, it’s solid and then the owner can come in and Dog can generalize to the owner from the from the computer to the owner and it saves the owner so much time and frustration.
Now that’s interesting you bring that up.
I hadn’t thought of that before where we ask people to train their dog we give them some instructions and then we send them home after a B&T Class A behaviour and training class and we forget they’re not professional.
Animal trainers, they aren’t necessarily equally or even consistently good at it.
So consistency sounds like something you like hear.
Yes, for sure, I mean, the hard thing is that once you teach a dog something and if you do it incorrectly, it is so difficult to unteach it right?
So if you can do it right from the start, be consistent reward the consistent behavior.
Your dog learns so quickly.
It gets to 80 to 90% reliability and it’s ready for the next level.
kay, now, John, how do we make that transition from a dog that’s been interfacing with your device and is getting this really well execute The couldn’t train that only machine can do, let’s face it, machines are really good at doing repeatable, consistent stuff, right?
But then they have to go deal with wetware, a human who’s gonna be all variable and all over.
How does that how does that transition work?
What have you learned?
Totally Well, I think the first thing I’d say is that there’s not a hard transition, we think our device, that companion will never ever replace the love and the affection of a human even bond.
So like the entire time your dog might be at home training might be at a boarding center training, you’re still loving your dog every day.
There’s no, it’s essentially we act as your proxy while you’re away.
Like while you can’t be with your dog, the companion can help like using your own voice and teaching your dog the things that you’d love it to learn.
So that’s number one is that we don’t view it as like a hard transition but number two
It works the same way as a professional trainer works.
Now, if you’re fortunate to have the resources in order to pay relatively expensive professional trainer in hourly basis, may hand off those behaviors you on the same way that we do.
Which is they train on their own voice, their own gestures.
And then they help generalize that training to you, so when you pick your dog up, they’ll ask for you.
They’ll do a couple commands first to show the dog that it’s kind of time to generalize and also just show off the behavior.
And then they’ll ask you to repeat it, so your dog will understand it.
When this person says seat it’s the same thing as when this person says seat.
Okay, And so we do the same thing.
One of the things we actually find when we’ve kind of shyly, covertly done, there’s been a number of households participating in some of our early R and D and what we’ve seen in households, having units at home, is that actually
People love to watch their dog in training.
So often times they can see their dog working with a companion and actually being trained and it’s actually kind of fun, which is pretty cool.
And they actually learn a little bit on how to generalize and how to train just from that interaction.
Like the couple key features or key Capabilities and training are key knowledge points like waiting for the exact right time for, to reward based on when the dog does the behaviour.
In addition to a variety of other things.
Now your machine is picking up a lot of cues about what the animal is doing its comportment, how much how fine detail can you get into as your sensors Watch the dog you’ve got, I assume photo sensors as well as you got some depth sensors going.
What’s the sensor package?
Yes, it’s a great question.
The short answer is we can sense a lot and we’re only scratched.
We’re barely scratching the surface right now and I’m so excited to do more.
That at the very base of our company is the strong conviction that we think all of the sensors that are now becoming available to all of us in the palm of our hands, whether it’s the face ID sensor in the top of your iPhone, in addition to what’s called the GPU are basically like an AI chip.
But it helps you do vision work or computer vision like understanding what’s in a scene in your phone instead of big, powerful data centers.
We think that all of these these two technologies are going to radically change how much we can understand about an animal.
Whether that’s just a gross posture, whether if you’re animals on a set, or if it’s the nuance of how your dog’s lip is being formed right now your dog’s ear position or tail position over time.
And like that’s just what we can see then we can also use technology to do things we can’t see Like we, in our professional units today, we already have IR sensors.
They’re part of the 3D depth sensor.
So you can imagine doing pretty even kind of more advanced things like what if you could detect your dog’s temperature?
What if you could detect your dog’s pulse because you can see the IR pulse in your dog’s thin skin in your dog’s ear.
There’s so many more advanced things that we don’t have time to do now.
There are some really, really fun things in there.
This reminds me of one of the things I’m told a lot by people in the AI space who say, AI is great for finding answers.
It’s also great for finding questions.
Is that part of what’s going on here?
That feels like my day today.
[LAUGH] Yeah, I think that, I mean, if you think about it, I think my own personal belief is even the best of us who are really trained or why Lani is obviously an expert in our field.
I mean, she can probably pick up a ton on what a dog is communicating to you.
But we’re still probably only scratching the surface, like there’s so much conscious communication like My dog sitting by the door is probably trying to consciously tell me [UNKNOWN] go outside but there’s so much other communication we miss just because we can’t pick up on that little ear wag or that little tail difference.
There’s also a ton of unconscious communication we can pick up on, whether it’s how your dog is slightly bent its back a little bit more over time or how your dogs [UNKNOWN].
This moving in a different way over time.
Because we spend so much time on these companions we love we miss these subtle differences that computers with perfect memory
and very high degrees of precision will never miss and things always home even when we’re not which is gonna return to normal soon as we all rush back to work and a whole bunch of animals are gonna go from having us around them all the time.
To suddenly not so let’s turn while on to an area that I know you deal with a ton of it’s probably I would assume one of the biggest problems you work with people on around behavior and training is separation anxiety.
You were telling me earlier, this is such a huge and thorny one to deal with.
How can this kind of automation technology help with that?
Well, I think it’s a wonderful tool to use.
I mean, like, just like you, you mentioned, Brian, we’re all home.
Price for a dog and cats are not used to us being home or either
-ecstatic or shocked by our being constantly their dogs and cats are really attached to their owners and they’re, they get used to us being here.
Once we go back to work if it’s a very abrupt transition, we’re home 24 seven with them and that Here we go back to work and then we’re to gone again eight to 12 hours, all of a sudden, there’s a huge vacuum in their world.
What are they gonna do?
They get really distressed.
Are you coming back all of a sudden you’re gone.
Are you coming back at all?
I think that drastic change is very distressing for a lot of dogs.
So, having John’s unit, I think the machine help us out beforehand.
Is just a great option.
If we can start training the dog to start doing relaxation exercises remaining calm and the owner start practicing getting ready to leave stepping out and the dog remains calm.
I mean that’s a huge immense help.
When we finally go back to work, and we have to be gone for longer hours.
So let me ask you this, why Lani.
If people are looking at this and saying, I’ll play the devil’s advocate.
They’re saying, This is kind of like when your kid needs attention, you stick an iPad in their hands.
Give me the counter argument to that about people who will say this is mechanical substitution for time you should be spending With your pet, what do you say to that, from your SPCA point of view?
I think of it as a tutor.
I think of it, kind of like what John mentioned is, what’s the difference between having the unit and having a trainer, right?
You got a heads up, you know?
So I feel like, if you’re busy working You and your dog can you can give your dog something to do that aids it and learning that it doesn’t have to be distress when you’re when you’re gone.
Why not use it right?
It doesn’t mean you don’t interact with the dog at all right?
The recommended what we take a break five for ten minute break for every 50 to 60 minutes.
We’re on the computer Take that break, work with your dog.
Intermix your training with the AI training right?
So the dog learns to generalize I listen to the unit and listen to mom and dad and the transference between the two is equal.
So yeah, it’s not it’s not gonna 100% replace the owner, but I think of it as a tutor, I think of it as an aid right you get you have one off
So John, if we look at this and you mentioned this earlier a little bit alluded to the idea of availability A person who maybe today is able to spend the money on having a trainer and get some high quality lessons and all that.
Tell me how you bring this whole thing down from being a little bit of a luxury or seeming a little elitist.
What’s your model to get it out to a wide number of shelters, many of whom we know.
Are pretty resource strapped.
They’re not all SFSPCAs and people who are maybe just struggling to feed their pet and saying, wow, I can’t afford this thing.
What is the price of a car?
What’s the model here for getting it out?
But there’s so much to that question.
We want to get it out to everyone as soon as we possibly can.
And the short answer is on shelters.
This will always operate on a nonprofit basis in shelters.
That’s its core.
It’s the right thing to do.
It’s super fun for all of us on the team.
And it’s also the right thing to do from a corporate standpoint because it’s great for our brand and marketing.
Now we love to be known as helping animals and shelters.
In terms of the technology price, it is absolutely gonna be expensive at first.
That’s just part of the fact of a new technology but we’re gonna ramp it down as quickly as we can.
And the really nice thing is that even though it’s, Relative even though it’s probably the most expensive will ever be, it’s far less expensive than having than other potential options.
And and it’s very approachable in terms of absolute cost.
And certainly less expensive than having a dog suffering from separation anxiety going absolutely nuts, possibly harming itself and, let’s face it, causing damage to your place, whether you rent it or own it.
I wasn’t very articulate about that response, but think of if your options are spending tens or hundreds of hours trying to help your pet for going to work, for going for vacation because your animal has extreme separation anxiety, where it’s maybe furniture, it’s ruined carpets, but more importantly your animal is just in a ton of pay, like just in a really bad place.
And that can cost hundreds thousands of dollars versus our we’re offering our professional unit we’re working with the SMS PCA and we’ll continue working with them in addition to during the COVID crisis and understanding that we’re likely to see a spike in separation anxiety cases.
One of the things I can announce today and is that we’ll be making some of our professional units available to folks at home.
specifically to help deal with this and as part of ongoing work with Villani on helping with the With the cute separation anxiety, in addition to just engagement for your animal, so this is a relatively approachable so think of like 200 bucks a month.
And this is a relatively approachable option to make sure your animals engaged, it’s trained, and also it’s a relatively affordable solution separation anxiety.
And is that your model with the companion devices and it’s a subscription service
Yes sir.
We think the hardware is already fantastic.
The products already fantastic.
But we are super excited about what we’re gonna do in the next handful of years.
So for our professional units for shelters for boarding for walking dogs
Service dogs will always be owning the hardware ourselves.
So we can maintain it.
And we can also give you upgrades.
You will always have the latest upgrades.
For the average home user, what’s the forecast in to getting their hands on these.
I know it’s something you’re going to see in a few of the pro units initially.
But in general, if I’m saying this is exactly what I’ve always at home, what’s the forecast when I might be able to go online and sign up for one of these?
Yes, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially if you have a dog the worry might be in danger of developing kind of a greater case of separation anxiety.
Like please.
You’ll see on our website over the next couple days, it will make a form available for folks to sign up.
We have a very limited number of units.
A lot of our units already allocated.
And we have a very limited number of units in the near term.
But we hope to make some more fun announcements kinda over the summer.
Okay, give me the website address.
Sure it’s www.joincompanion just like it sounds, .com.
Wailani I wanna finish with you as we finish on this thought of rolling out and this getting broader, initial.
Distribution still small potatoes but moving out to a few more of an audience, both professional and home.
What do you think the reaction is gonna be of the shelter community in general?
I mean, you’re here in San Francisco.
You’re surrounded by technology.
You guys were at SFSPCA which has been pioneering in so many areas, but in the big picture, cuz we’ve got people watching from all over the country.
What do you think their local shelters gonna need to be brought along on this idea?
I don’t think they need a lot.
I think you just need to show them how the unit works, show how do you use it in the shelter setting And they are gonna line up, they’re going to be rushing to the door for it.
Because like you said, even as SPCA, we have limited time to spend time with all the dogs, we can’t spend time with them 24/7 But to have a unit to keep them mentally occupied, to provide that mental enrichment so that when they actually interact with people, they have such a tighter bond, such a healthier interaction that I think it’s wonderful.
I think shelters are gonna see how beneficial having that unit in their shelter is and they’re gonna They’re gonna want to line up for it right away.
Okay, I look forward to seeing how this rolls out.
I’ll be intrigued by the reactions you get from both people and from organizations.
And it’s interesting how this has come along.
I know you guys have been developing this for quite a while John, but this pandemic kinda hit at a time when suddenly this becomes really serious stuff.
And not just elective optional benefits.
So suddenly you find yourselves in a moment, right?
Yeah, exactly.
And I just wanted to add one thing to the shelter comment is, and we would love to talk with more shelters we want to get out.
We wanna get the unit out to as many shelters in the US as quickly as possible.
And to all shelter volunteers out there, most of our team is volunteers at the ASPCA.
Thank you for your service one.
To is this device will always be a compliment to your love and care.
And the model of the ASPCA is the same as will be in home, which is where there when you can’t be there.
So we know the model with the ASPCA is we train early in the morning, we train later in the evening where shelter volunteers can’t be there with the animals themselves.
So that’s that’s I think that’s an important point, especially for the folks putting in the long hours as volunteers.
And I think that we would love if those out there who haven’t heard of us before in the animal welfare field, please let us know if there are things we can be doing to help.
We’d actually shifted quite a bit of our company priorities to try to help with things that are popping up during COVID.
Whether it’s separation anxiety, whether it’s trying to make our professional units, which are really geared for boarding and shelter environments and working dogs, to consumers at home if it helps during this crisis.
And even some kind of more advanced things like I think we’ve made a little bit of news that we’re working with a nonprofit called Dogs For Diabetics.
Diabetic alert dogs to help them prove out the dogs can detect COVID-19 and even potentially help scale up training for that.
Okay, so there’s something really new going on here.
I’ve been talking with well Ani song, who’s a veterinarian and a Board Certified behaviorist.
Being a veterinary behaviorist at the San Francisco SPC and john hunter drew who is CEO and founder Of companion.
There are and we will keep an eye on how this technology rolls out.
That’s suddenly elevated to an even greater level of importance because of the times we are in.

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