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Do you really need a smart collar for your dog?

Do you really need a smart collar for your dog?


Fi’s dog collar has some interesting ideas, but leaves a lot to be desired

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

When you get a dog as a pet, one of the first things you end up buying is a collar. It’s typically a simple, straightforward purchase: figure out the color, make sure you have the right size, and once you clip it on, you’re ready for your first walk.

Fi is a new company that’s looking to inject a bit of technology into what was previously a bit of plastic or metal attached to a strap. Its dog collars are designed and marketed as fitness trackers for your animal, and as a basic safety net to help in the event that they run off or otherwise get lost. I’ve been testing one of Fi’s collars for the last month and a half with my nine-year-old lab mix Tiki. But in that time, I can’t entirely figure out if it’s really a device that I need in my life, and Fi’s approach to smart dog collars doesn’t make it easy. 

Let’s get the basics out of the way. Fi manufactures a selection of dog collars, which can do a couple of things. The design is a basic collar with three connection points: the clasp, as well as the two points that connect to the actual device itself. The collar runs at $150, and you need to pay another $99 a year to take advantage of all the tracking and features that come with it. That’s a steep premium over the $10-$15 you might spend on a traditional collar.

First up, the Fi collar functions as a basic pedometer, allowing you to track your dog’s steps via a mobile app, much like you would do with a Fitbit or similar device. In theory, the more steps and exercise you take, the better. The device also works as a location tracker, using a low-power GPS and LTE connection in conjunction with the collar’s base, plugged in somewhere in your home. This is a feature that looks great on paper, but only works occasionally well (and sometimes very bizarrely) in practice. 

As a pedometer, the collar works nicely: I was able to check up on Tiki throughout the day and generally see what his activity levels were. In his case, lots of running around in the morning and evening, then the occasional blips of activity when he moved from the couch to the bed, to the floor, and back to the couch throughout the day. He generally racked up around anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 steps a day, depending on what we were up to. When we dog-sat Elsa, my parent’s pesty two-year-old Shiba Inu mix, that number shot up to 20,000 or so, while she clocked in 42,000 on one particularly busy afternoon of running around playing. The app will convert individual walks into distances traveled some of the time, but it won’t aggregate those steps into the distances traveled each day.

The app has a built-in goal of 10,000 steps a day, the same as what most fitness trackers seem to recommend as a goal for people. But while I can specifically tell you how many steps Tiki’s taken today, I can’t actually tell you if that’s enough, or if it’s too much. 

Image: Fi

While testing the collar out, I spoke with Dr. Anne Culp, a vet at the animal hospital that I take my dog to, about what the veterinary community thinks about this type of technology. She explained that this was the first such device that she’d seen, and that because the technology is so new, there really is no basis for the 10,000-step requirement in the scientific literature that she was aware of. Fi says that it came to that mark after testing, finding that it was roughly the count for 30-60 minutes of activity. 

Moreover, a standardized requirement like 10,000 steps isn’t a one-size-fits-all metric for all animals. In Tiki’s case, I don’t know exactly where the point is between underactivity and pushing him too far in a day, and that number will depend on a variety of factors from dog to dog: age, weight, general health, and so forth. 

10,000 steps isn’t a one-size-fits-all metric for all dogs

At the end of the day, that’s a conversation that needs to be taken between you and your veterinarian. Culp notes that she would use the collar as a way to narrow in on how much exercise an animal is getting. “If [Tiki] came in and was 10 pounds overweight, I’d say ‘You’re doing X number of steps now, let’s try increasing that by a thousand steps a week, along with diet and any medications he would need.’” She explained. However, the “hard part is that there’s no data for that plan. There’s no study that says increasing a thousand steps a week for X amount of weeks, you’re going to lose five pounds.”

It also depends on the health of each individual dog, she says. “If we’re talking about a dog that’s 14 years old and has horrible arthritis, maybe the rule is 5,000 steps a day, or they get sore, painful, and uncomfortable.” She also points out that Tiki and Elsa’s steps will differ greatly: “a smaller dog is going to have to take more steps.”

But presently, Fi’s app doesn’t allow users to take that advice and expertise into account when they put their pet into the system. That strikes me as a problem, because of how this tool can be used — guidance doesn’t always mean compliance on the user’s part, and I can see someone going with the built-in settings out of convenience. Just as Apple warns its users that its Apple Watch heart monitoring features can’t be used to diagnose a serious problem, Fi’s collar is in the same boat, and should be seen as a supplemental device.

Fi says that in the coming weeks, it plans to “launch the ability to suggest activity levels based on breed and age (based on aggregate data from our systems) and allow the owner to manually set their step goals.” The company also says that it always recommends that owners consult with their vets. 

Fi’s collar and others could be an extremely useful tool if used correctly and after talking to a vet

Culp says that Fi’s collar and others could be an extremely useful tool if used correctly as owners include their pets in their daily exercise and activity. “We could all be happy, healthy, and active together. I think medically, there’s not strict step recommendations — it’s based on the animal and how many steps they’re taking, and maybe that will change. Maybe we’ll get studies now that these are out there.”

But while functioning as a pedometer is probably the most useful component of Fi’s collars, they have another purpose: location tracking, and that’s where the collar really gets complicated. 

CEO and founder Jonathan Bensamoun told The Verge that he began the company because of a practical problem: he wasn’t convinced that the dog walker that he hired was actually doing what they said they were doing. So, he rigged up a camera for his home, and discovered that his dog walker was indeed not taking the dog out for walks as hired to do. Fi essentially comes out of that: it’s a system for checking where your animal is. 

There are some neat features that come with this. The app allows you to set a perimeter in which your dog can roam, and it’ll alert you if they go beyond that line. It’ll also send you a text message when you and your dog appear to be going for a walk — useful to know if you have multiple people, dogs, or dog walkers involved in your life, and you want to generally keep tabs on where they are. 

A sample walk in our backyard. The app’s depiction isn’t exactly accurate.
A sample walk in our backyard. The app’s depiction isn’t exactly accurate.
Screenshot: Andrew Liptak / The Verge

The collar powers a GPS unit to find your general location and then to your closest cell towers. After it’s connected, it sends data to the company’s servers and the app. It looks as though it essentially snaps your location onto the nearest street or path to correct for the device’s rough location. Unlike your phone, you’re not likely going to have the same, precise location for your animal at any given time. While Tiki was at home, he would frequently appear as though he was sitting in my neighbor’s house, or sitting on the side of the road. Our walks in the backyard weren’t that much better: the app would display a straight line between the middle of a neighboring forest and the middle of the property owned by a landscaper. Walks along city roads were a bit more accurate, although there were still errors. 

The company says that it uses a low-power LTE signal because it allows them to preserve the battery life, and that you should be able to get three to four months out of a single charge, provided you aren’t toggling the “lost dog mode,” which prompts the system to ping its location a bit more frequently, and thus uses more power. I ended up testing the mode a couple of times, and it apparently burns through the battery, because I’ve had to recharge the collar on its dock at least twice in the seven weeks I’ve been testing it. 

I was hoping that the device would deliver a more accurate location when I wanted it

Maybe it’s because I’m really used to using something like my phone’s GPS system, but I was hoping that the device would deliver a more accurate location when I wanted it. It’s also occasionally laughably inaccurate: there were times when the app thought that Tiki was leaving the house, and notified me that I was taking him for a walk, when in reality, we were both sitting on the couch. 

There were also two occasions when the collar came off of Tiki completely while playing or rolling around on the ground, and one of the collars lost the silver nameplate. When Tiki came running up and we realized that he was missing the collar, there was a moment of panic, because he’d somehow managed to lose a $150 gadget. Using the system as a tracking device proved to be inadequate: we ended up finding the device next to the garage, while the app was saying that it was really a couple of hundred feet away in the woods. Fi also says that they’ve only had two reported instances of defective buckles, noting that it’s a type widely used by companies like Petco, and that some early versions of the collar used a defective glue that held on the nameplate — a minor cosmetic issue that’s since been fixed. 

Now, that couple of hundred feet probably won’t matter as much if it’s connected to an animal that will presumably respond to your voice and come when you call them. The company does say that the collar has been useful in helping some of their users locate pets that have gone missing. Having that information — even if it’s not 100 percent accurate — can be really useful if you’re out looking for them. I’ve spent late nights searching for Tiki in the woods because he’s wandered off, and having even a rough idea of what direction to look in would have been helpful.

But this particular incident underscored a problem with the gadget: not only had it come off on its own (only one of the collars that I tested had this happen — another didn’t have this issue), but it shook my faith that the information that I was getting from the collar itself was accurate. If I’m spending a considerable amount of money on a device for my dog, I want to make sure that the device is as accurate and as foolproof as possible. In the years that we’ve owned Tiki, we’ve traded out collars every couple of years, and I’ve never had issues with them: they do the advertised job of staying on his neck. 

Much of this problem, I think, stems from the origin of this device in the first place. It’s designed as a tool to surveil someone you’re presumably trusting to take care of your animal — not an unreasonable impulse, but it’s one that strays a little too much into potentially creepy-ish behavior, especially given that the app collects a considerable amount of personal information in the form of location data. Fi says that it’s being proactive in ensuring that information is safeguarded, that it’s encrypting data between phone and server, and that the company’s CTO, Loren Kirkby, came from Nest. But in this day and age, it feels more like a “when” not an “if” user information will get leaked or exposed somehow.

Image: Fi

There are other, nitpick-y issues with the whole thing: the app itself feels clunky and unintuitive to use, and it takes some playing around with to get the feel for where all of the features are. Swiping a carousel at the bottom brings up past days’ activities, and it doesn’t really break down that activity into information that makes sense. It’s hard to tell exactly where the collar was last, and I can’t really figure out how it’s choosing to display what information for me at any given point in time. There’s also no real way to customize the app for particular things: you can’t set any sort of reminder to take a walk at some point, nor adjust the number of steps that you want your dog to take. Ultimately, it feels like you’re accumulating a lot of data points, but there’s no real way to act on them, at least through the app. Fi also says that it’s planning to implement a sort of social network, which I’m not really sure I want in my life.

On the hardware side of things, the base needs to be plugged in all the time for the collar to work properly. That’s not a huge issue, but it does mean that you have to give up an outlet somewhere in your house — and if you’re the type of person who’s likely going to buy a smart dog collar, I’d wager that you’ll have quite a few other things that need to be plugged in on a regular basis. 

Lots of clever ideas, but it’s not quite polished enough for me to pick one up

Ultimately, the device feels as though there are a lot of really clever ideas, but it’s not quite polished enough for me to seriously pick up one of these, as opposed to just buying a regular dog collar. 

All of this boils down to a bigger question: do you really need a smart device for your animal? I personally don’t employ a dog walker, and while Tiki *generally* stays within his territory around my house, I’m not terribly concerned with him getting lost, although he has wandered off before. As a fitness tracker, I’d say that the device is probably a little more useful, although you still have to subscribe to the entire location package in order to fully use the app. At the end of the day, it’s telling me that I just need to walk Tiki (and let’s be honest, myself) more than I already am — something Tiki already tells me promptly at 6PM.

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