Published October 25, 2013
“I am back where I’m supposed to be, and my tracker is in power save mode.”
That is the opening line of an email I receive multiple times a day from Saggio, my 3-year-old German Shepherd. No, he has not yet learned to type or use the Internet. (He’s not that smart.) Instead, his comforting correspondences come courtesy of Tagg, a small, Apple-white gizmo that attaches to his collar. I doubt he even knows it’s there. And he certainly has no clue that it’s getting in touch with people on his behalf. But there it is – my dog now sends emails.
Like FitBit, or any number of other fitness trackers available for humans, Tagg keeps tabs on various aspects of its user’s life – specifically, how much exercise Saggio receives each day and where the hell he’s wandered off to. But unlike human gadgets, Tagg provides more than just bits of data for obsessed pet owners like myself to pour over – it gives him a way to communicate with me that has never before been possible.
My dog has, in other words, become a cyborg. And Tagg and other similar products are only the beginning.
Big furry business
Over the past 30 years, Americans have become mad about their pets. More than 74 percent of U.S. households purposefully share their dwelling with another species, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That’s up from 56 percent in 1988, by the American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) count. Some 55.7 million households have at least one dog, and 45.3 million have a cat (or 10) sulking around. We have, in total, 218 million pets in the U.S. – not counting fish. My house, for example, is currently occupied by two humans, one dog, three cats, and one ball python – a relic from my bachelor days that keeps my ophidiophobic fiancée from going anywhere near my home office.
The U.S. Department of Labor calculates that American pet owners spent $61.4 billion on our pets in 2011 – more than what we spent on booze that year – a number that some expect to rise by as much as $2 billion every year. What’s more, the money we spent on our pets was one of the few non-essential expenditures that remained consistent throughout the Great Recession, at about 1 percent of our total income.
Tagg is but one of an increasing number of technology companies tapping into that revenue stream. There’s FitBark, and Whistle, both of which monitor a dog’s activity similar to Tagg. There are RFID chip-activated doggy doors. Smartphone-activated pet food feeders and webcams. Pet treadmills. Robotic litter boxes. Remote-controlled gophers. Automatic laser toys. And collars that let your pets post tweets to Twitter. The bevy of pet technology may seem absurd – but it should surprise no one considering 63 percent of us view our pets as full fledged members of the family – not animals at all, but people.
“There’s this over-arching trend that’s sort of dominated the whole industry for a bit of time now, this term ‘humanization of the pet,’” says Tagg CEO Scott Neuberger. “They’re as close to human as they can get. In every way, we’re turning them into humans.”
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us and a neuroeconomics professor at Emory University, asserts that the theory that dogs are humanlike may have a scientific foundation. Using MRI scanners, researchers discovered for the first time that dogs’ brains function surprisingly similar to our own – so similar, in fact, that Berns argues for granting dogs “limited personhood” – a sentiment with which many dog owners already agree, I’m sure.
Activity trackers like Tagg tell dog owners to know when their canines are getting enough rest and exercise.
The result of pet humanization is a drastic change in how we relate to these animals, dogs especially. For many, dogs are no longer second-class creatures destined for a life lived outdoors, tied to trees, living in un-insulated wood boxes. Now they are awarded every luxury we give to our children and ourselves.
Ben Jacobs, CEO of Whistle, which will launch its dog activity tracker later this month for $100, says this “macro trend” shift in our perception of pets has become a guiding light for his company and others in the pet product industry.
“One of my favorite phrases we use at Whistle, and others have used in the past, is ‘From the yard to the home to the bed,’” says Jacobs. “And often, I like to joke: ‘From the edge of the bed to the top of the pillow.’”
But we aren’t just snuggling our pups more. Instead, thanks to technology, we’ve begun to get inside their heads, explains Neuberger. “Using technology like Tagg, it basically gives a voice to the dog,” he says. “It’s the best thing we can do right now to understand what they’re feeling.”
Doctor, doctor, dog
At $100, Tagg originally launched as a GPS device similar to the more robust (and expensive) gadgets produced by companies like Garmin, which are often used by hunters, not your average dog owner. And location tracking remains one of its primary functions. I flick open the app on my iPhone to see Saggio as a little blue dot, his digital representation pulsating over top of a Bing Maps satellite image. And for those who have dogs that are disposed toward running off, this may be its most useful feature. (German shepherds, as a breed, are not known for straying far from their people.)
It is, however, the activity tracking features available in Tagg, Whistle, FitBark, and an increasing array of competing products that have the highest long-term potential, and greatest number of uses.
Upon setting up my Tagg, I’m asked to input Saggio’s age, weight, height, and breed. This data is stored alongside that of other Tagg users. Armed with this demographics information, I can use Tagg to determine how Saggio’s exercise level compares to that of other German shepherds of his age and size – theoretically, at least.
It was easy to forget to attach Tagg to Saggio’s collar after charging it on the base station. When I did manage to remember, however, the data was telling – if a bit obvious. He rests most of the day, with bursts of light, moderate, and high activity. Tagg awards Saggio points for getting rest and exercise; the higher the number, the higher his activity level. For pet owners like myself, who are with their dog anytime he’s getting exercise outside the house, Saggio’s activity level came as no surprise. What I did learn was precisely how much or little exercise he was getting over time, and how that relates to his fluctuating weight.
Approximately one-third of Americans (35.7 percent) are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But our cats and dogs are far fatter. A recent study from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention – the existence of which is a sign of our increasing pet obsession – found that 52.5 percent of dogs and 58.3 percent of cats are overweight or obese. It is numbers like these that motivate the teams behind Tagg and Whistle, both of which have begun to work with veterinarians to help them better care for their canine patients.
Data collected by activity trackers like Tagg could soon help vets provide better care for your pooch.
Using pet tracker data, vets can better prescribe “proactive” rather than “reactive” health care methods for pets, Neuberger explains. “The pet health business up until now has really been reactive because you don’t really have any leading indicators,” he says. “Your dog can’t talk to you.” Products like Tagg change all that by providing vets with daily data that includes how much your pet is sleeping and exercising in the periods between visits. Drastic spikes in the amount of rest or activity can help determine what’s going on with Fido in a way never before possible.
“With technology like Tagg, we can shift [pet healthcare] to be more proactive, and we can identify trends in advance,” says Neuberger.
The assortment of sensors in these devices can also be used to reveal more than just why your dog has a gut. Thanks to the sensitive 3-axis accelerometer in Whistle, for example, the company has helped vets better diagnose the million dogs in the U.S. who suffer from epileptic seizures.
“It’s very, very hard to know how many times a dog is seizing,” says Jacobs. “That’s extraordinarily important inference in terms of medication.” Dogs who seize once a month need an entirely different drug from those who have seizures multiple times a day. By strapping tech onto one of these dogs, that key information becomes instantly available. This is but another example of how these types of devices can “bring that voice to the animal,” he says.
Whistle has also been working with pharmaceutical companies to design better pain medication for pets. After a surgery, for instance, it is difficult to know whether dosages are too high or too low. “You give the dog pain meds, and you have no idea if they’re working,” says Jacobs. This often results in pet owners incorrectly dosing their pets – yet another problem that can be solved through computer-generated data that tells you how your pet is feeling through changes in its activity and sleep patterns.
The higher level medical uses for dog activity trackers are still in their early stages, and we likely won’t see our vets recommending that our dogs achieve certain levels of Tagg or Whistle points anytime soon. (Such plans are in the works, however.) But the foundation for using technology to tap into the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations of our pets has already been laid, and it’s only a matter of time before Saggio is chattering away his wants and needs with more than a bark or whine.
Dogs vs. robots
As exciting (or obnoxious) as that may sound, the truly mind-blowing future of cyborg dogs lies in the decade ahead. One of the most impressive examples of dog-technology hybridization comes from researchers Jeff Miller and David Bevly, who along with a team at the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory at Auburn University helped create a system that allows users to remotely control a dog using pre-programmed GPS coordinates.
The goal of the project, which received funding from the U.S. military’s Office of Naval Research, was to use computers to remove the need for a dog handler. Rather than using invasive techniques, like hardwiring gadgetry into the brain, highly trained dogs were outfitted with backpacks containing a slew of sensors, microprocessors, wireless and GPS radios, and modules that delivered vibrational and tonal cues, which in turn told the dog which direction to go, when to run, and when to come back to home base.
Sony creates a special dog harness for its line of HD action cams, allowing dog owners to see what it’s like from Fido’s point of view.
The first of these devices was made using a Wii remote, “like the gaming system,” says Miller. But this still required a person to issue the right tones and vibrations at the right times. Miller, who earned his doctorate through the project, removed the need for a remote entirely by building a system that enables a person to enter specific GPS coordinates into a computer, which would then automatically “guide the dog wherever you wanted it to go” by playing the correct tones at precisely the right time.
Miller says this type of system could eventually “be used for all kinds of things,” especially high-risk work like search and rescue or finding planted bombs in war zones like those in Afghanistan or Iraq – applications where both dog an handler put themselves in perilous situations. By removing the need for a handler altogether, it could save human lives and allow the dogs to perform at a superior level.
“There’s something about the handler that actually is kind of cumbersome to a dog, as opposed if he’s out there and has the freedom to do what he wants to do naturally,” says Miller. “So the idea of eliminating the handler could be an attractive thing.”
Thanks to developments like those achieved by Miller and his team, researchers in the field of biomimcry (engineering devices based on naturally occurring plants and animals) are quickly discovering that technologically enhanced animals – from dogs to cockroaches to pigeons – may be far superior to any robot we could build.
“We can’t compete with what the dog can do naturally – just its odor detection, much less its ability to go over rough terrains,” says Miller. “So to develop a robot that can do what this dog can do takes decades to pull this off.” For this reason, many engineers have “just given up” trying to build robots, instead shifting their attention to animal control systems.
Among the consumer-level applications Miller envisions for his team’s creation is one that would give seeing-eye dogs the ability to guide their vision-impaired masters to pre-programmed locations. Used that way, “all [a user would] have to do is press the McDonald’s button, and then the canine will just guide him there,” says Miller. “There’s all kinds of cool applications that you could use this for.”
Of course, most mutts don’t have the skills to use such a system – Saggio certainly doesn’t. The dogs outfitted with Miller’s autonomous guidance pack are highly intelligent and expertly trained. And to buy a dog with that skill set could run upwards of $30,000 – and that doesn’t even get into the cost of the control system itself. Still, Miller believes that, with more funding, his project could become a consumer-level product within the next 10 years, at which point dog-borgs will almost certainly become all the rage.
For now, Saggio and I and will have to make do with his automatically generated emails and colorful activity charts. Those features don’t seem nearly as impressive knowing that I could eventually send him on remote mission to McDonald’s. But they do make a good game of fetch all that more rewarding.