I Bought a Device That Tracks My Dog’s Every Move

My new dog, Kaya, is fast and energetic — and potentially very easy to lose

Photos courtesy of the author

When we got our dog, Kaya, last year, I was ready for life with a puppy. I’d read the books and watched endless training videos. What I wasn’t prepared for was the endless assault of companies trying to sell me a million kinds of dog things.

From smart dog cameras with lasers to automated fetch toys, device makers have come up with a slew of gadgets for pet owners to splurge on — even though a stash of dumb toys would do the job just fine, as we’ve recently argued on Debugger. I’ve resisted these smart things so far with a single exception: I caved and bought a GPS tracking collar called the Whistle Go Explore for Kaya.

Kaya is a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, which are fast, energetic dogs with a high prey drive. They’re sometimes used for hunting, and I was warned by my vet to consider investing in a way to track her down in case she darts off in the woods when she sees a rabbit. A friend of mine lived this exact scenario and spent an entire stressful day searching for their dog before finally being reunited.

After researching GPS trackers for pets, the $129 Whistle Go Explore seemed like the obvious choice. There are only a small handful of “trackers” on the market, but many of them rely on Bluetooth, which has limited range and won’t work if your dog has run too far away. Trackers with a cellular connection independent of your phone, however, are able to report back on their own, regardless of their distance from you.

Honestly, I felt silly buying a GPS tracker at first given that I’d have reservations about attaching it to a child if I had one. But the peace of mind with a young dog has been worth it.

The Whistle connects to a cellular network and tracks your pooch in near real time, regardless of how close you are. Unlike some competing trackers, the Whistle doesn’t require you to buy a SIM card and put it into the device: You just pay the company a monthly fee of $9, and it gets you connected to AT&T’s network. (It’s worth noting that the Whistle only works in the U.S. and Canada.)

That’s probably the most jarring experience of the Whistle: After paying for the collar, it demands a subscription fee as soon as you open the app for the first time rather than at least letting you try the tracker first. But cellphone networks aren’t free to use of course.

Beyond connectivity, the most important consideration is battery life. A tracking device isn’t any good if it runs out of juice all the time. The Whistle Go Explore touts an average of 20 days of battery life, which means you aren’t charging it nightly.

To achieve this, it does some smart tricks to lower battery usage when your dog isn’t lost. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth when it’s nearby, which avoids the battery-heavy cellular connection, and a “family trips” feature allows the device to connect to any other phones in your household. When you’re at home, Whistle connects to your Wi-Fi network to sync automatically and enters a power-saving state.

As with most advertised battery numbers, I didn’t find that the Whistle lasted quite as long as promised. I have ended up charging it about every 10 to 14 days, likely because Kaya is very active, though it’s possible to set the tracker to update its location far less frequently to preserve battery life. The good news is that it’s difficult to forget to charge it: The device warns you both in the app and via email to pop it on the charger before it runs out of juice.

In terms of tracking, it’s rock-solid, at least as far as I can tell. I haven’t lost Kaya yet, but I’ve tested it when my partner walks her, and getting a location update takes less than 30 seconds on average. If Kaya got lost, the Whistle could be put in ongoing tracking mode, which updates the location constantly, at a set interval, until you turn it off. The app automatically creates a tracking history of all the places your dog went over the space of the week, which can be viewed on a map to see how adventurous they’ve been.

The Whistle itself is relatively small, light, and inoffensive given what it can do. It latches onto any collar, so you don’t need to buy a special Whistle-branded collar — they make them, and they offer a quick-release attachment, but I don’t think it’s a necessary splurge. The device charges over MicroUSB and features a small light for extra visibility at night as well as an IPX8 waterproof rating, which means it can resist at least a meter of submersion in water.

It might be a bit too bulky on breeds significantly smaller than a duck toller, but on an average-sized dog or larger, it’s a comfortable size — Kaya doesn’t seem to notice it at all.

The app is jam-packed with features for everything from fitness tracking to a reminder system for things like tick treatments. I could follow how many active minutes Kaya has every day, set a goal for her, and get reminders when she isn’t active enough. This might be useful for some people, but I already walk Kaya three times a day and take her out on hikes, so I don’t see the value in tracking her fitness like my own.

All of these features are presumably because tracking on its own is rather boring — you only need it when the worst has happened — so Whistle wants to give a reason for people to come back to its app. Some people might find these things useful to help ensure their dog is healthy and walked enough, but I wish I could turn them off.

Honestly, I felt silly buying a GPS tracker at first given that I’d have reservations about attaching it to a child if I had one. But the peace of mind with a young dog has been worth it. (Just note that Whistle’s parent company does collect and market against geolocation data: You can view its privacy policy here. For more on this, head over to OneZero.)

For $9 per month, just knowing that I could stand a better chance of finding her if she were to escape or run off while on a hike has been worth it for this nervous dog parent. I hope I never need to use its full tracking capabilities, but it’s nice to know they’re there.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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