Whistle, the Fitbit for dogs, makes push into mainstream

Aimed at gathering data to help track and improve a dog's health, the wireless tracking device lands in PetSmart stores next week. And there's now an Android version of the app.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
5 min read
Kona, an Australian Shepherd, wears his Whistle tacking device. Courtsey of Tina Haskins

Surrounded by hundreds of miles of icy water, Tina Haskins still found a way to connect with her dog, Kona, who was thousands of miles away back home in New Jersey.

A marine scientist conducting research on plankton in Antarctica, Haskins used an app to track the activities of Kona, a blue-eyed Australian Shepherd, throughout the day.

In this case, the app syncs with the Whistle device, a small, coin-shaped wireless tracker that attaches to a dog's collar. Whistle tracks Kona's movements as well as her location, and Haskins' friend, Kona's temporary caretaker, posts photos of Kona and updates of his activities on the app.

"Every morning, every night, or whenever I'm missing him, I can pull up my Whistle app and see what he's up to," she said during a phone interview with CNET.

It's one of the more colorful instances among Whistle's users and while it illustrates how Whistle is effective when helping owners feel connected to their pets, it doesn't show the real magic behind Whistle. Haskins said the big value for her is in the data Whistle gathers. It's the key to establishing a baseline of data for Kona's health, something that would be difficult to determine otherwise, given that she doesn't know everything about Kona's past.

"Kona's a rescue. I don't have any real knowledge of what his life was like before I had him, and I don't know what his parents were like," Haskins said.

In a world where humans are starting to quantify every aspect of their waking, and sleeping, life, it's not surprising that we would want to gather data on man's best friend. Pitched as the "Fitbit for dogs," Whistle is finding a need even beyond the usual gadget-crazed tech community. The company announced on Thursday that PetSmart, the leading pet retailer in the US, is putting Whistle, which costs about $130, in all of its stores next week. Whistle said it's also launching the Android version of its app.

Big data
Other devices, like GPS trackers, have been around for several years and Whistle is not without competition. For example, Dogvacy, the company that connects owners with dog-sitters, was testing the use of GPS and activity monitor Tagg to let owners track their pets from afar. What's setting Whistle apart from its competitors is an emphasis on using the data gathered by the device to help improve a dog's health.

Like every good caregiver, Haskins is concerned about her dog's health. Through the device she can see what level of activities are typical for Whistle and eventually Whistle could help Haskins spot any anomalies with Kona's behavior or activities and allow her pinpoint issues before they come up.

As an oceanographer, her life's focus is on gathering data and deciphering what it means, so it's important to her to do the same for Kona's health, she said.

Along with testing its device among beta users like Haskins and Kona, Whistle is working with researchers to establish data on dogs with varying ailments. The idea is establishing a baseline for how these ailments affect dogs throughout the day. It will give veterinarians the tools to catch symptoms early on.

Whistle is a wireless monitor that uses a sensitive accelerometer, similar to what's in a fitness tracking devices or cell phone. It's tracking hundreds of data points every second, according to the company. And researchers are actively harnessing that data to help pets.

Michael DiGregorio, the director of the Veterinary Clinical Investigations Center at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, uses Whistle and other tracking devices in his research. The clinic sees about 33,000 cases a year -- all pets with aliments.

Its researchers has been using Whistle for chronic pain studies. These are cases involving ailment like arthritis or bone cancer. The animals wear the device on their collars for 7 to 10 days and then researchers have them try out various activities, like sitting, walking or running. Understanding how active an animal is -- even at night when pain can cause a dog with bone cancer to move around a lot -- could understanding how to make an animal most comfortable when dealing with ailments.

"It allows us the opportunity to quantify what often are very subjective measurements in animals," DiGregorio said. "Because dogs can't talk to use, they can't tell us how they're feeling."

There's also potential to track dogs with epilepsy or allergies, or determine how much food to give a dog in one sitting based on its size, breed and activity level. This could lead to an array of products that will help owners optimize their dogs' health, DiGregorio said.

This is part of the vision for Whistle CEO Ben Jacobs, who started Whistle in 2012. As a llfelong dog owner, Jacobs said he knows the joys and pains of caring for a dog.

"Having a pet is fun and it obviously makes people happy, but we take Whistle very seriously when it comes to a pet's health. It's not a game," he said.

Jacobs talked fondly about his German Shepard, named Bear, who died from an intestinal obstruction. The symptoms weren't noticeable to begin with. When Bear stopped being able to walk up the stair or eat properly, it was just too late. Jacobs hope for Whistle is to gather enough data, across various breeds and ages, to prevent something like this.

To get there Whistle needs to be widespread and PetSmart is just the first step, according to Jacob. The retailer has more than 1,300 stores in the US and Canada, and plans to display the product prominently at the front of the store. It's a great push for the device but Jacobs wants to see Whistle along side wearable tech like the Fitbit in general stores like Walgreens.

This reality may not be far off, especially since Whistle has created a community of ambassadors with owners like Haskins, and the rising popularity of wearable tech for humans. Haskins said she was initially intrigued by Whistle because it was a similar concept to Fitbit, which she had recently purchased for herself.

"I might be a little dog crazy about my dog," she said. "But it's not a product for the obsessed. I think there's a push for not just being healthy person, but being more in-tuned with what makes our animals healthier."

Correction, 2:46 p.m. PT: This article has been change to reflect that Whistle is not GPS-enabled.