Fi collar on a dog

Wired for walkies

Image credit: Fi

GPS-enabled pet wearables have joined the fightback against the pandemic’s soaring dog theft scourge.

As if Covid-19 hadn’t brought enough worry and distress, many households have been hit hard by a different kind of loss – the theft of a beloved pet.

The wave of dog thefts began in March 2020, as people faced with lockdown and self-isolation sought canine companions to help them deal with confinement, both as mental health boosters and prompters of outdoor exercise. Insurer Direct Line cites researcher Opinium’s finding that 2.2 million people in the UK took ownership of a dog in the first six months of the coronavirus crisis.

The hike in demand for dogs soon outstripped legitimate supply. With coveted breeds like Staffordshire Bull Terriers already commanding price premiums, organised crime gangs and other lawbreakers started to steal dogs for resale and breeding.

At its height, the average purchase price was over £800 per-pooch, although at least 11 per cent of buyers spent more than £1,500, according to a study by Direct Line. Puppies have been in greatest demand. Online marketplace Pets4Homes reports that the average puppy cost increased 134 per cent between September 2019 and September 2020 – from £817 to £1,912.

Family pets, professional kennels, and even working dogs have been targeted in the canine crimewave. Direct Line’s study found that in 2020 reported UK dog thefts increased by around 20 per cent on 2019 levels, with an estimated 2,438 dogs reported stolen. That’s roughly the equivalent of seven dogs being reported taken each day – not counting those that slip their owners and are grabbed by opportunists. Public outcry compelled the UK government to announce a pet theft taskforce to combat the scourge.

With heart-rending news media appeals for the return of beloved bow-wows, anxious dog owners have increasingly turned to technology to provide additional safeguards for their pets. Enhanced premises security, such as intruder alarms and video surveillance, can help deter thefts from gardens and kennels.

Wearable, wirelessly connected dog-attached tracker devices that, among other functions, monitor a dog’s geo-location, have also seen significant uptake. This product sector was already tipped for growth: Global Market Insights valued the pet wearables market at $3bn (£2.1bn) in 2019, with a compound annual growth rate of around 23 per cent through to 2026, with shipments set to reach 70 million units. Leading vendors include Tractive, Fi, Garmin and LINK.

Prior to the pandemic, analysts saw pet health-monitoring apps as the key growth-driver, but this has changed, believes Michael Hurnaus, CEO at Tractive. “The more the media communicates around dog theft, the more people look to products that can help them reduce risk,” he says. “Our customers have certainly reported that they are on greater alert due to the ‘dognapping’ spate.”

‘Dog owners ask, ‘Is it possible to implant a GPS tracker into my dog?’ Unfortunately, the answer is a hard ‘no’.

Michael Hurnaus, Tractive

Dog trackers work similarly to in-vehicle satellite-navigation systems. Used in conjunction with an app on the owner’s smartphone, GPS trackers pinpoint a dog’s location within GPS signal ranges, primarily while a dog has the run of an enclosed space such as a back garden or yard, or is being exercised outdoors.

Typically, trackers can be configured to send an alert to owners if their dog escapes – or is snatched – from a designated ‘virtual fence’ area, for instance, or roams out of an owner’s sight while exercising off-leash. The promise is that a connected animal can be tracked anywhere within range of standard GPS signal coverage.

Hardware wise, wearable dog trackers mostly take the form of compact, robust battery-powered units that can be attached via collar or harness, and function via a branded cloud-based service package. Using an integrated SIM card, the tracker, and the service backend exchange data at frequent intervals, transmit updates directly to the smartphone app so that owners stay apprised of their dog’s whereabouts.

Tractive’s GPS DOG 4 solution, for instance, reckons to update every two-to-three seconds, with app features that include a Virtual Fence (raises an alarm if its four-pawed wearer moves beyond a designated distance), live tracking, and location history, should owners want to know their dogs’ favourite stopping places.

Other dog trackers have the transmitter technology built into a custom-designed collar, as a single, integrated unit. Fi’s Smart Collar primarily uses the LTE-M cellular network to communicate GPS information. LTE-M is a type of low-power Wide Area Network radio technology developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project standard initiative for the enablement of cellular Internet of Things applications. The Smart Collar can also dynamically connect to Wi-Fi nets and Bluetooth beacons to conserve energy and top-up battery power.

“The idea is that, should a dog fitted with a Fi collar ever get out, it will use all available network signals to provide a notification of their escape,” says Fi’s founder and CEO Jonathan Bensamoun. The Fi app also links to Fi Twitter and Instagram accounts, so that users can post notifications about missing or stolen dogs with the Fi user community in a given vicinity.

As anti-theft solutions, GPS-connected dog trackers have their limits. Fast-acting thieves could bundle a connected canine into a car and have sped away by the time its owner has been alerted to the fact that something bad had happened. Savvy snatchers will, of course, know to remove a tracker and get rid of it. However, not all snatchers are savvy, Tractive’s Hurnaus points out.

“Actually, dog thieves often do not immediately check the collar of a dog they have taken,” Hurnaus explains, “and even simple measures like placing attachable trackers in a non-see-through bag – like a dog waste bag – can mean it might escape notice by thieves for some while” – long enough, possibly, for rescuers to get a locational fix.

Fi has even had cases where a dog and its owner were saved due to the GPS signal from the pet’s Smart Collar, reports Bensamoun. “We had an incident of a Fi user who, with their dog, was abducted and driven across several US states. The abductor didn’t realise that the dog had on a Fi collar, and the police were able to locate them by tracking the signal that collar was sending out.”

Skin-deep sensitivity

Implanted GPS trackers ‘10 years away’

GPS trackers bear scant relation to the implanted microchips that recovered dogs must have checked to verify their ownership. Mandatory in several countries for all dogs older than eight weeks, these subcutaneous RFID-based transponders are passive until activated by a scanner’s radio waves. It’s low-tech stuff, but the dog-theft crimewave has given rise to widespread owner speculation about the existence of GPS-enabled implants, says Tractive’s Michael Hurnaus.

“It’s the most common misconception when it comes to the notion of GPS and implants for dogs. ‘GPS implant for dogs’ is now commonly searched for in search engines. Dog owners everywhere are wondering if such a product exists – they ask, ‘Is it possible to implant a GPS tracker into my dog?’ The answer is a hard ‘no’ – current technology simply does not allow such communications devices to be implanted into dogs.”

Hurnaus continues: “Technically, Tractive’s devices are tiny cell phones without a display. Regular battery charging, and the need for strong antennas, make it impossible to get the devices ‘under the skin’, as it were.”

However, Hurnaus points out, with the smaller devices from Tractive weighing in at 30g, indications are that the technology is getting closer: “Will it be possible in five years? Highly unlikely,” Hurnaus admits. “In 10 years, then? Well, connected technology always looks vastly different either end of 10 years.”


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