Your Pet Doesn’t Need Gadgets
I could have saved a lot of panties.
That was my first thought upon reading about the “Companion Collar,” a next-gen satellite-linked smart collar for dogs and cats that didn’t exist when Peanut, my underwear-devouring Rat Terrier, was going through his troubled teenage years.
Granted, my dog-chewed drawers might not have been salvageable. But with a Companion Collar (slated for release in spring 2022), I could have satellite-tracked Peanut’s movements, compiled the data on his underwear-eating behavior — when, why, and how — and received real-time alerts on his panty-thieving antics through a cellphone app.
Even better, I might have figured out where in the depths of the yard (oh god, I hope it wasn’t the neighbors!) my beloved canine companion buried two years’ worth of my undergarments.
Now we have a new puppy in the household, Nova — an 8-month-old bounding black bundle of sheer Labrador enthusiasm and good cheer. Aka, exhaustively energetic. Nova has (thank goodness) yet to develop an underwear obsession. But she does love to play tug of war, dig up the yard, chase balls (and the cats), steal one shoe (and only one) from every pair of shoes in the household, tear apart the garden fence (because those are BIG sticks) and run, run, run.
It’s been a while since I raised a puppy, and now, in my tired middle age, I started wondering if the new slate of high-tech pet gadgets and accessories might be a tool to help me (and Nova) survive the destructive puppy and teenage-dog-from-hell years.
Perhaps Nova would benefit from a Furbo Interactive Dog Collar? When I wasn’t home, I could watch her and talk to her through the two-way audio and even tell Furbo to toss Nova a treat. Or, I bet she would adore the iFetch ball launcher, an automatic ball-throwing device she could arm herself (the dog fetches the ball, puts the ball back in the launcher, iFetch “throws” it again).
Not so fast, says Sarah-Anne Reed, a consulting dog trainer for Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. Nova probably would love those gadgets, Reed says, but I might not love what they did to Nova.
“There are some gadgets that can be helpful,” Reed says, “But it’s really important for people to realize the potential problems that can happen.”
Gadgets, like automatic ball launchers, can lead to obsessive behavior. Your dog can end up having a one-track mind with nothing they’d rather be doing, at every minute of the day, than playing with their ball launcher.
I had a firsthand experience with accidentally creating obsessive behavior. Several months ago, I discovered Nova loves chasing a laser red-dot light. Other than greatly annoying the cats (that was THEIR game), what a great way to run off some of Nova’s wiggles in the house. Or so I thought.
But after a week of daily laser play, I noticed even if I happened to pick up the laser-pointer to put it away, Nova immediately started searching the house, looking for the “red dot.” Then Nova started chasing the reflection off my cellphone screen, leaping up on the side of our couch to “catch” the reflection on our kitchen wall. Meanwhile, I’m frantically trying to block the sunlight streaming in our window and bouncing off my phone before she takes a header through the drywall.
I mentioned it to our puppy obedience trainer, Karry, and she immediately freaked out. Put the laser pointer away NOW. I was in danger of creating a dog that would obsessively bark at and chase light reflections for the rest of her life — yikes!
Exactly, says Reed. In her 13 years helping dog owners through her holistic dog training business, Pack Dynamics, she has often had to help owners attempt to break obsessive behaviors, like chasing light shadows. Unfortunately, many gadgets and even games designed to entertain dogs may end up creating just that sort of obsessive problem.
What seems like a great idea, a ball launcher your dog activates itself! Can devolve into something they refuse to EVER get tired of.
Ball, fetch. Ball, fetch. Ball, fetch. Ball…
Even “smart” games, like teaching your dog to “speak” using pre-programmed buttons the dog touches to tap out a “message,” can potentially create a (talking dog) nightmare. A sheepadoodle named Bunny has become a TikTok sensation for tapping out messages to her human owners like “more outside” and “now beach.”
Reed isn’t surprised that Bunny learned to tap out words (an average dog learns 165 words, potential PhD doggy students even more, according to canine researchers at the University of British Columbia). But who is training who in this scenario, she asks? The dog is rewarded first for “speaking” to their owner then rewarded for telling their owner exactly what THEY want.
Bunny’s owners may be inadvertently “encouraging demanding behavior,” Reed says.
(This reminds me of raising my children. When they were infants, I couldn’t wait for them to talk and tell me what they wanted. When they started talking, I wished they weren’t always telling me — aka demanding — what they wanted. Canine psychologists say a dog’s intelligence is on par with a 2-year-old toddler. It makes perfect sense to me.)
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Problems can also arise around gadgets geared toward food and treat dispensing, Reed says. The Furbo allows owners to shoot their dogs a treat remotely. That can encourage a dog to start hunting for food and could cause a lot of stress and confusion, Reed says.
“They can hear you and they can’t see you. How confusing is that,” Reed says. “Then a treat shoots out….and they don’t know why they are getting it.”
But, they do figure out if they interact and bark at the Furbo, a treat appears. “That worked really well to get a treat. I’m going to do that again,” is what a dog can quickly learn, Reed points out.
What about those food bowl dispensers that automatically dispense food at a specific time or in certain amounts, like the WOpet Smart Feeder? Those can be okay in single pet households, Reed says, but it can cause food-aggression fights between dogs, especially in multi-dog homes. If the gadget dispenses the food when you’re not there to monitor, the dominant dog may start keeping the other dogs from eating. And you’re not around to stop it.
Human pet owners are often lured into buying gadgets for their pet companions because they feel guilty that they have left their pet alone and think they need to be entertained.
Or, if one dog (or cat) doesn’t finish their food and walks away, another pet runs around gobbling up everyone else’s food. Suddenly you have a few skinny and one overly pudgy pet.
Especially when it comes to dogs, Reed says, feeding them yourself shows leadership to your canine companions. It tells your dog, “You look to me to provide the food. You don’t have to worry about it.”
Plus, “how long does it really take to feed your dog?” Reed points out.
Human pet owners are often lured into buying gadgets for their pet companions because they feel guilty that they have left their pet alone and think they need to be entertained. But, in most cases, pets sleep when their owners aren’t home. (And as far as cats are concerned, they are just as likely to be happily entertained with the box the toy gadget came in as the gadget itself).
Even dogs with separation anxiety aren’t acting out because they are bored. It is because they are worried about where their human companion is. Giving them “toys” to entertain them while you’re gone doesn’t solve that problem.
“They are just sleeping. They don’t need to be entertained with a movie and a pizza,” Reed says.
Replacing human-to-pet interaction with gadgets can take away training opportunities, Reed says. When you play fetch with your dog in the yard, you’re not just teaching them to chase a ball. You’re rewarding them for coming back to you when you call. That can go a long way toward teaching a dog that difficult “come” command. A ball launcher doesn’t teach “come.”
Pet owners can easily be guilt-tripped into buying gadgets to occupy their pets when they’re too busy to spend time with them. But, is that what you got a pet for? Reed asks.
“Like children, what memories are you creating and what experiences are you having with your dog?” she says. “That was so fun watching them play with the ball-launching gadget, versus I had a really fun time playing fetch with them in the backyard.”
Not all gadgets are harmful. Reed is a fan of cameras that observe your pet’s behavior when you’re not home (but not interactive ones), especially if you’re working to address separation anxiety issues. GPS locator collars (and eventual satellite-linked collars like the Companion Collar) can be a helpful safety backup if you’re out on an off-leash walk and your dog gets lost. But, remember, putting a GPS tracker on a dog (or cat) and letting them run unsupervised around the neighborhood doesn’t keep them safe from predators, being hit by a car, eating something dangerous, or creating a nuisance of themselves.
For their part, the manufacturers of their Companion Collar, Australian-based Ceres Tag (they also have a smart tag for tracking cows!), say they aren’t planning to market their satellite-linked tracking collars to owners of companion pets. They are focused on purpose-trained animals — like guide, police, army, and hunting dogs. Owners of these highly trained and high-value animals (and their insurance companies) will be able to closely monitor the animal’s behavior for health metrics and keep track of them while they are performing their duties.
Underwear-thieving terriers probably don’t qualify.
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Other gadgets like Wi-Fi enabled, self-cleaning litter boxes, dog cooling collars, or smart water fountains seem relatively benign (and still human helpful!). But remember, gadgets can fail, Reed says. Automatic pet door openers can be handy until the battery dies and your pet is stuck either outside or inside.
“Gadgets fail for us humans, but we usually have a backup. Animals are relying on us, and they have no backup,” she says.
Bottom line, think about the purpose of getting the gadget. Is it to improve your pet’s life? How is that happening if you’re spending less time with them and replacing your interaction with a gadget?
In hindsight, Peanut’s undergarment obsession was, most likely, his way of expressing just how very much (eww) he loved me and less about the underwear itself. A tracking collar might have located my underwear, but not necessarily stopped Peanut’s obsession with them. Eventually, he did grow out of his daily panty pillaging ways and replaced that behavior with a less destructive way to show his deep bond with me.
Now he licks my toes.