Joe's dog Ruby is scratching too much. That's just one of the things his medium-sized Golden Whoodle discovered when he took the Whistle Go Explore for a test run during the dog days of an NYC summer. There are a ton of GPS and fitness trackers for dogs and larger cats on the market that sync with your phone via Bluetooth to tell you how much activity they're getting, where they are and how much they're sleeping. So what makes Whistle different? Big data.
Whistle is owned by Mars. The same company that makes Snickers and M&Ms also has a pet division that owns the biggest chains of animal hospitals (VCA, Blue Pearl) and veterinarians (Banfield, Linnaeus), sells some of the most popular pet food and treats (Iams, Temptations) and offers canine DNA testing services (Wisdom Panel). And that's only a handful of its pet-related brands.
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The latest version of its trackers, Whistle Go and Whistle Go Explore, move beyond simple location and health tracking to recognize and report patterns that may indicate other types of problems, just as we're seeing with wearables for humans. Using the results of a survey of 55,000 dogs via Banfield (with another 30,000-dog study ongoing) and machine learning, the initial capabilities are detection of excessive scratching and licking, but the company plans to expand beyond those based on the results of its studies.
The $100 Go and $130 Go Explore differ by ruggedness and battery life: The Go Explore can be submerged in up to 6ft/2m of water and the battery can last up to 20 days compared with the Go's 3ft/0.9m depth level and 10-day battery. The Go Explore has a light you can toggle on and off through the app. This, of course, will reduce the overall battery performance. And they come in different colors of course. You still have to tack on a monthly AT&T subscription of $6.95 to $9.95, depending on contract, which is steep (and currently limits service to the US).
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Both improve on the low-end $90 model, the Whistle 3, and its seven-day battery. The new models incorporate a more sensitive accelerometer that enables it to sense vibrations typical of scratching or licking and distinguish between the two, as well as to provide real-time location tracking with alerts rather than at 60-second intervals (a minute is a long time for a dog gallivanting through Manhattan streets). They also add weekly wellness reports to the iOS and Android apps in addition to the more commonly reported duration and distance, calories burned and activity recommendations.
Although a tad bulky on Ruby, it's pretty light at just under an ounce and we think it looks cute. (We're not sure what she thinks, but she seems to be OK with it.) It's recommended for pets 8 pounds/3.6kg or larger which means you can use it with an above-average size cat -- if they'll let you put it on.
Setup is pretty straightforward. You download the Whistle app and follow the instructions to connect to your home network. You can add a picture of your pet, select its breed and set a daily activity goal. You can also add "safe" places -- home, a family member's place and so on -- so the app knows when to notify you that your pet is on the move.
Icons in the app remind us that Ruby needs to be active every day, while also telling us which aspects she could fo with some work. For example, there are days where she gets a lot of walking but not as much playing. Ruby's generally an active pup, but we discovered that when no one's home she isn't doing much. Now we're thinking about ways to incorporate more playtime at home while we're at work.
The Wellness Trends section showed us that Ruby was scratching too much (which subsequently switched to licking). Had she needed to go to the vet, we would have had exact information as to when the scratching started and when it shifted to licking, which can be really helpful for diagnosing skin conditions and determining whether they're a physical issue or stress related.
When the dog walker arrived we could see when the pair left the building, how far they went and get an alert when they returned. Knowing where home is also allows the device to go into power-saving mode to extend battery life. The Whistle needed to be charged about once a month.
The Whistle app supports multiple users, so both of Ruby's humans could monitor her progress and location. The company has made an effort to gamify activity with achievements, from reaching her daily goals, upping miles traveled and completing a perfect week, to name a few.
Detecting when Ruby left home wasn't quite as seamless in NYC as it might be in less population-dense areas. Wi-Fi network signals can reach well beyond an apartment, so it didn't recognize that she wasn't at what we consider home -- outside the apartment but still within the building -- and delayed jumping to the cell network.