The secret lives of dogs: Emotional sensor helps owners understand their pups’ feelings

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TailTalk - Yannis Tsampalis

Yannis Tsampalis, the CEO and co-founder of DogStar Life, thinks their new product, TailTalk, could help owners build a better relationship with their dogs. 

A dog’s tail wagging could be worth a thousand words, and with the help of a new gadget, we’re a little closer to translating its message.

Believing a dog’s tail is a window to the canine soul, founders of New York-based tech company DogStar Life created a smart device to help owners decode the messages transmitted when pups wag their tails and better understand the emotional lives of their furry friends.

TailTalk is a lightweight sensor that sits on a dog’s tail and documents the peaks and valleys of the pup’s feelings throughout the day, according to the creators.

“It basically combines an accelerometer and a gyroscope much like the Fitbit, but it’s picking up on the way the tail is moving,” DogStar Life COO and co-founder Mike Karp said in an interview with Yahoo News.

“The idea is to capitalize on all the research that’s been done in the last two to three years on what tail movement means, and translating that into emotion.”

DogStar Life launched an Indiegogo campaign Monday to raise $100,000 to further develop the technology and prepare the hardware for production.

TailTalk transmits the emotional data to a companion app for iOS and Android via Bluetooth. Ideally, the information will enable owners to emphasize the environments, people, toys and so forth that bring their pets the most happiness, while avoiding stress inducers.

Left wagging, Karp said, usually indicates negative feelings like anger or aggression, while right wagging typically indicates positive feelings like happiness or excitement. But their tails convey even more subtle cues to other dogs.

Yannis Tsampalis, CEO and co-founder of DogStar Life, told Yahoo News that the product should not make anyone feel guilty; rather, it should empower an owner to improve his or her pet’s quality of life.

“If you know that your dog is really unhappy during the day, it’s probably in the best interest of both of you to have a dog walker or dog sitter come over,” he suggested. “We feel that pet parents are wonderful, but if they had more data, they can probably make better decisions and create a stronger bond between them and their dog.”

Tsampalis, who previously worked in smart accessories for Verizon Wireless, and Karp, who worked in data for several organizations, decided to join forces shortly after meeting in September 2014 while pursuing MBAs at Cornell Tech in New York.

They started DogStar Life by combining Tsampalis’ passion for the rapidly growing field of wearable technology and Karp’s love of dogs.

“It was extremely exciting for both of us,” Tsampalis said. “Mike had grown up with dogs in his life. ... I consider wearables to be the new wave of computing — there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity and a lot of untapped territory.”

Early on in the project, Tsampalis and Karp spent a lot of time talking to dog owners and veterinarians to understand what was most important to them, because they did not want to be swayed by their own biases.

“And one of the things that always came up was the health and happiness of their dogs,” Tsampalis said.

The key to understanding a dog’s happiness, they said, is its tail.

Pamela Perry, a veterinary behavior resident at Cornell University, said tail wagging does not automatically indicate happiness. It signals behavioral nuances that dogs understand but humans do not always recognize.

“Fortunately, there are ways to monitor and record dogs’ body language, and ongoing research offers a more detailed understanding of how our pets express themselves,” she said in a press release.

Karp explained that most of the research done so far involves still photography, but he hopes the release of the product will enable further research, which will be reinvested in the hardware.

The team at DogStar plans to prepare TailTalk for delivery in mid-2016 for Indiegogo backers.

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