Case Study: Designing an Internet for Dogs

June 8, 2020

Andrés Lucero and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas (Aalto University) present a speculative co-design workshop aimed to critically probe what it would mean to be a dog on the internet.

Every day, millions of dogs are left alone in houses full of internet-connected devices: could getting dogs talking to each other online improve their wellbeing?

While the internet was developed for humans to share information and bring separated communities together, researchers interested in both animal welfare and machine interfaces are beginning to ask if this can be applied to other non-human animals (hereon animals). Andrés Lucero and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, researchers at Aalto University, ran a speculative co-design workshop to probe critically at what it would mean to be a dog on the internet, and what the dog internet should look like.

Dogs are being left home alone for a considerable amount of time unable to socialise, making them prone to negative and problematic behaviours from a lack of dog-to-dog contact1. But with millions of dogs home alone, could the internet not help here by connecting these animals together? Animals have used computers for a long time, from cognitive testing apparatus to playing tablet games, but they have yet to be connected to each other in a meaningful way. To question this, we have started to explore what dog-computer interfaces could look like and focus in on where our gaps in understanding exist so that we can start to develop a doggy internet. Here we question how we can design for the “other” who has very different needs and interacts somewhere upon a spectrum of awareness. It was this awareness of how a dog could meaningfully interact and connect with other dogs online that we, and our participants, wanted to question. As we cannot directly question a dog, or any non-human animals for that matter, Design Fiction for animal-technology opens up a world of fantasy prototypes to help situate new technology within a narrative. In this narrative we can grapple with the surrounding questions of ethics, values, social perspectives, causalities, politics and emotions (Lindley & Coulton, 2015).

For our workshop we combined the method of Design Fiction with the World Café method. Fostering large group discussions, the World Café method consists of five main elements: setting, welcome and introduction, small group rounds, questions and harvesting2. Employing our overall task of dog-to-dog interactions we asked our nine participants (including a dog as a co-designer) to think about different types of technologies, screens and tracking systems, haptic and wearable systems and tangible and physical systems.

For each design participants were tasked with thinking about how the dogs could communicate remotely, how the interaction would start and end, do dogs need equal understanding of the interaction and what would these communications look like. Using video materials of prior animal-technology systems, pens, pencils, paper, robotic dog toys, dog toys and sticky notes, our participants for two hours sketched into the future in 15 mins iterations. After analysing the wide range of ideas at different levels of fidelity, we ended up with six design fictions that allowed dogs to interact in real time: Companion-Dog, Virtual Walk, DogFlix, Tangiball, RopePull and Laser Collar. Companion-Dog allows dogs to video call projections of each other using a toy, Virtual Walk allows dogs to run together on treadmills, DogFlix to watch TV together, Tangiball to play fetch with each other, RopePull to play tug of war and Laser Collar to make use of collars for GPS guidance to meet at the dog bar. The full details and design sketches can be found in our open access publication (Hirskyj-Douglas & Lucero).

Whilst this idea for dog-to-dog internet communication is intrinsically fun, the research has great potential for animals who are left alone. Through imagining the future and questioning through the stories that accompany the designs, we are provoked as designers into making conscious questions and decisions about the assumptions we hold. For the dog internet this includes what a dog would value, how we can evaluate the systems we design and what is the best way to meet the animals’ needs and requirements.

Here we found that the drawings of technology devices often included repurposing dog toys, as these are self-discoverable and intuitive allowing for constant affordances in design. Importantly all the designs also allowed the dog to have “consent” and autonomy over the devices, often through moving novel objects (i.e. dropping a toy) or walking away from the system.

We have demonstrated that—for designers co-designing with animals—this method stimulates key points of interest.

For the interaction, our participants started to question two things: what can be interpreted by the computer system as an intentional interaction from the dog and what is a meaningful interaction with the computer for the dog. In this case, what would a dog expect to get from another dog in a computer system and how they expect to interact. Here we acknowledged that this is largely unknown especially as the dog’s experiences are interpreted through our eyes. We concluded that in designing for animals, we must not focus on designing and building systems as with complete cognitive reasonings – but acknowledge the unknowns and designing for these in-between spaces.

In the future we hope to build parts of these interfaces to further research into the doggy internet. For now though, whilst much is made of design fiction to stimulate discussions around future technologies, we have demonstrated that—for designers co-designing with animals—this method stimulates key points of interest.



Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas is a computer scientist researcher in Finland. Her projects focus on how to design and build systems collaboratively with animals that provide autonomy and are ethically appropriate. Ilyena graduated in Human-Computer Interaction at University of Central Lancashire in 2018 and currently works as a PostDoc in Aalto University.

Andrés Lucero is Associate Professor of Interaction Design and research leader of the Embodied Design Group (EDG) at Aalto University in Finland. His work focuses on the design and evaluation of novel interaction techniques for mobile devices and other interactive surfaces. His research interests include human-computer interaction, design, and play.

  1. PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report https://www.pdsa.org.uk/media/4371/paw-2018-full-web-ready.pdf 

  2. World Café http://www.theworldcafe.com/key-concepts-resources/world-cafe-method/ 

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