Stray dogs fitted with a prototype "smart vest" may be making their way onto Thai streets to fight crime. A hidden camera is attached to the collar of the dog's vest and is activated when sensors detect aggressive barking. (Reuters)

To some in Thailand, stray dogs are a nuisance. They spread disease, harass people and generally get into trouble. But a new initiative hopes to combat that perception by turning the animals into a form of mobile surveillance on paws — by putting them in a “smart vest” with a hidden video camera.

The program, which began in March and required five months to create, is in the early stages of development, and the vest is a prototype. But the group of crime-fighting dogs already have an occupationally appropriate name: “The Watchdogs.”

“What we want to emphasize is that stray dogs can be useful and they can live together with the community,” said Awika Suyasit, a member of the team that came up with the idea from Cheil advertising agency, a subsidiary of South Korea’s Samsung Electronics. “Because every dog already has instincts to protect their territory and also their masters, we decided it would be more convincing to people if we created something that enhanced those instincts.”

To take advantage of the dogs’ keen instincts, developers working in conjunction with Phuket-based Soi Dog Foundation fitted the vests with cameras activated by aggressive barking that sends a live video stream to a mobile device (monitored by humans, of course).

The idea, for example, is that once the stray dog on your street inadvertently activates their camera late at night, you could see whether there’s a threat in real time while you lie in bed and look at your phone — assuming the dog continues aiming its camera in the right direction.

“We did try to make the vest as light and as comfortable as possible, Suyasit said. “At first, they might feel a little bit strange, but after a couple of times they get used to it. It’s no different from typical dog clothes on the market.”

How do you know dogs will bark at a potential intruder rather than a cat or other animal? Suyasit said developers have addressed that issue by tailoring the camera’s activation to particular types of barking.

“Normally, a dog will use different voices on different things,” he said, noting that the technology could also be useful if a dog barked at a venomous snake or a crying child who had gone missing. “It’s the way they’re used to communicating. So, we have programmed it to detect only when they bark with a certain voices, such as aggressive barking or when they feel insecure.”

Martin Turner, the managing director of the Phuket-based Soi Dog Foundation, told Reuters that animal cruelty is still a severe problem in Thailand, even after the nation’s first Animal Welfare Law, which imposes fines and prison time, was passed in 2014. Though he welcomes an attempt to give the dogs a purpose and change the perception of the stray animals, he cautioned that there is more work to be done to make the program viable.

“It’s too early a stage to actually say how practical the vests are,” Turner told Reuters. “We really don’t how they’re going to work, if they’re going to work properly or if the camera angles we’re going to get will be correct.”

“It’s going to be trial and error,” he said.

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