New technology allows pet owners to spy on every sniff and shredded slipper
In the prehistoric days before high-speed WiFi and smart home devices, dog owners had to open the front door to discover whether their canine companions had spent the day lounging on the couch or eating it.
Now, thanks to robotic cameras designed specifically for humans to remotely surveil and communicate with dogs, they no longer have to wonder. Every sniff, nap or destructive moment can be watched live on a mobile device. Dog parents can even remotely launch treats.
"It's definitely entertaining," said Cristin Bratt, a Fairfax County (Virginia) Park Authority official who watches Jackson, her Boston terrier, on an iPad at her desk. "It was a new concept for our family to have another living creature in our home, so installing a camera gave us peace of mind."
Bratt, whose family owns several smart speakers, surveils Jackson with a Furbo Dog Camera, a cylinder device slightly larger than an Amazon Echo that has a one-way camera, a two-way speaker and a launching mechanism that tosses bite-size treats several feet.
PetChatz, one of several competing products, has a two-way camera that allows dogs and dog parents to see each other. In addition to treats, it dispenses aromatherapy. And the devices, which cost between $180 and $450, generate big bucks for their manufacturers.
Consumers spent almost $50 million on dog cameras in 2018, according to Grand View Research. Amazon, whose CEO and founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, said Furbo was one of its top-selling smart home devices this past Black Friday and Cyber Monday weekend.
The cameras are just the latest form of human technology to crossover into the pet world. In the past decade, pet owners have outfitted their animals with activity trackers, swabbed their gums for DNA, and bought plenty of I-this, I-that products, such as the iFetch ball launcher.
What's driving dog camera sales?
For one thing, it's anxiety - for dogs and humans.
Up to 17 percent of dogs experience separation anxiety, and it's not pretty.
"Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors," according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "When the guardian returns home, the dog acts as though it's been years since he's seen his mom or dad!"
That's the primary reason Bratt uses a Furbo. Jackson is cute, but when his parents and human siblings go AWOL for too long, things can go south real fast. He once ate a down jacket hanging on a chair, turning the kitchen into a winter wonderland. He has been known to find boxes of treats and consume them all.
Bratt has attempted to dissuade Jackson from this behavior by speaking with him sternly through her Furbo.
"It seems to make him a little confused," Bratt said, though the mysterious appearance of her voice distracts him enough to reframe his activities. Usually.
Then there's the dog owner anxiety.
"It's been our experience from day one that there is mutual separation anxiety," said Lisa Lavin, a Minnesota veterinarian and PetChatz CEO and founder. "People treat their pets as part of the family. They are pet parents, especially with dogs. So it's like leaving their kids at home. They worry about them. They have more separation anxiety than the dog or that cat does."
Lavin is not being hyperbolic. A 2019 study in the journal "Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience" reported "hormonal synchrony" between dogs and humans during extended periods of separation.
"The relationship between humans and domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) has undergone thousands of years of shared evolutionary history, likely tapping into similar neurobiological substrates for attachment," the study said. "It is not surprising that domesticated dogs are able to elicit human caregiving responses."
Especially in millennials.
"Aren't we the ones who don't have kids but we all have dogs that we treat like kids?" asked Andrea Sosias, 28, a teacher in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
"We are seeing this a lot," Lavin said. "So pets are becoming an even bigger part of our family lives."
Sosias was standing in the kitchen of her condo with her husband, Alex, 29, a strength coach, and their two enormous dogs, Lola and Amino, who were competing for attention with voracious sniffing and kisses. In the corner, near a tray table of liquor, a PetChatz was installed against the wall.
Andrea and her husband use it to check in on Lola and Amino when they aren't home. As soon as the device dings that mommy or daddy has pressed a button on the smartphone app to check in, Lola and Amino go racing to the PetChatz.
"I guess they are like Pavlov's dogs," Alex said.
In the couple's previous home, a townhouse, the dogs were kept mostly crated. After moving to the condo, a friend bought them the PetChatz as a gift, and it gave them the comfort to try allowing Lola and Amino to roam free when they weren't home.
"This was a pivotal transition for them accepting not having to be crated," Alex said.
"And it was new location," Andrea replied. "They were very anxious being here because they had only lived at the townhouse."
Amino would pace. Every noise scared him.
"With the PetChatz, we could check in on them, see if they were OK," Andrea said.
Alex's opinion: "I honestly think a lot of it is that they realize they aren't being ignored."
Not only are Lola and Amino not being ignored, but they and other dogs under surveillance are becoming stars on social media, with dog-camera owners posting funny videos of their animals climbing on kitchen tables, rearranging pillows, running in circles, jumping out of playpens and chasing their tails (sometimes for hours).
And because dog parents can set their devices to notify them when their dog barks, Andrew Bleiman, Furbo's general manager, said his company's device had alerted parents to fires and burglaries.
"If you have a dog that doesn't bark a lot and you're getting a bunch of alerts about barks, you might want to check that out," Bleiman said. "It's almost like a tech advancement for a dog's original purpose."
PetChatz has introduced interactive games that dogs can play with their owners simply by the dog pressing a paw-shaped button attached to the camera. Lavin said dogs motivated by food are highly motivated players.
The companies are also working to integrate the cameras with other smart home devices, so that, for instance, if the dog jingles a bell a smart door could open so they can let themselves out.
"And then we'd would record the whole thing," Bleiman said.
The day might soon come when dogs could bark up their own music playlists.
Earlier this year, Spotify launched a website allowing users to create playlists for their animals based on mood, energy and personality. The goal: "a pawfect algorithmically generated playlist."