A Step Too Far

No tech gadgets for this dog!

In December, I wrote about Mood Collars. Shortly after, I heard about another product that goes even farther — it is essentially a Fitbit for dogs. Actually, it’s more than that. It is a comprehensive health, mood, and activity tracker. Big Brother for your pup.

According to the website, the gadget attaches to the dog’s collar and measures your dog’s movements, also recording whether the dog is eating, drinking, sleeping, pacing, etc. Data are sent via wifi to the company’s server. The data are crunched like a good bone, providing info for you, the owner, to access from a dashboard.

Is your dog stressed? Appropriately active? Scratching a lot? Watching too much TV? Ordering pizza on your credit card?

Ok, it doesn’t monitor TV consumption or shopping habits, which is unfortunate, because I think that Cali is addicted to nature shows. But it does have algorithms that, the website claims, can suggest whether the dog is ill, if he’s not drinking enough, or if he’s itchy. The website is chock-full of high techy buzzwords, like “machine learning” and “onboard neural network”— words that crop up in my work all the time, but have no place in my relationship with Cali. It touts the “wellness matrix” developed by vets, which it pairs with data gathered on your dog, over time, to decide whether your dog is active enough, too active, anxious, or showing signs of illness. It sends you alerts, notifications, and suggestions, and you can also monitor the dashboard.

The techy and impersonal nature of this bugs me. Yes, I’d like to know if my dog is sick or anxious, but I am not sure I need to measure “key health and happiness indicators on 6 axes of freedom” to know that; I just need to spend time with her. Of course I want to know if she barks when I am away, though I suspect that my very human neighbors would let me know if she did. The claims to be able to detect “diseases such as hyperactivity, cognition troubles on senior dogs” and “anomalies such as arthrosis” by analyzing a dog’s activity and comparing it with a profile for his age and breed are dubious at best. Some things just can’t be done via remote technology, a thought that occurred to me this week as I filled out a survey from my own healthcare provider. Would I have preferred a phone or video consultation to my office visit this week, it asked. Um, no. Acupuncture by video probably wouldn’t work. Neither does caring for your pet via app.

Even though I leave Cali home while I am at work, I still spend enough time with her to know her as an individual. She’s not a line on a chart. She’s not identical to every other 56-pound dog or every other 4-year-old golden retriever. She’s Cali. I’ve known her since she was 8 weeks old. I can tell if she’s itchy or anxious. I don’t need a $200 gadget to tell me. But the gadget’s Kickstarter campaign has more than 300 supporters, so somebody thinks it’s a good idea.

To be fair, I can see some uses for it. It’d be a useful way to collect research data, since owner reporting is not very reliable. This gadget could help me figure out if Cali really is a return-anticipating dog who knows when I am heading home, which would be cool. Beyond that, though, I am not sure it adds anything that a good dog-person relationship doesn’t already uncover. Sure, if I had my dog in a kennel, I’d like a way to keep tabs on the caretakers, provided that there was wifi in the kennel. But I don’t leave her in a kennel; I leave her with dog sitters whom I trust— and talk to regularly. Besides, Cali already thinks I spend way too much time staring at screens when I should be outside, throwing a ball for her or walking through a park with her. She’s right.