As Fitbits and human pedometers have become part of everyday life, dog activity trackers have become increasingly trendy. Whether it's a collar gadget used for GPS tracking dogs or a canine pedometer, more and more canine wearables are on the market.
Dog activity trackers claim to improve both health and safety for your dog. But are these claims legitimate, and are these wearables really worth the sometimes hefty price tag and subscription fees? In this article, we take a deep dive into dog activity trackers and cut through the marketing hype to assess their real value for your dog.
What are dog activity trackers?
Known as "Fitbits for dogs," dog activity trackers are a broad term for a range of gadgets. These devices make a wide range of claims, including:
- Measuring activity,
- GPS tracking,
- measuring how well your dog sleeps,
- how many calories they burn,
- whether they are scratching, a
- nd even whether they are drinking too much.
How do dog activity trackers work?
Dog activity monitors mostly work with apps you can download onto your phone and update at specific intervals. This means many of them need subscriptions on top of the initial price and specific network coverage and contracts.
Subscriptions and contracts can be problematic. Therefore, we listed some of the leading trackers below and noted whether or not they needed a subscription.
How often the trackers update can vary as well. It can be every five minutes or every minute. To save on battery life, many companies try to have devices that don't update too often. This can be a problem if you have lost your dog.
In general, these devices either work with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or LTE. Those that work on LTE might need a specific LTE contract. This may or may not be worth it, depending on what you want an activity monitor for.
Bluetooth dog activity monitors have benefits since you don't need to use them in the Wi-Fi range. However, it won't be of much use if your dog is off-leash and out of range.
The Bluetooth range varies according to the device. For example:
- The Fitbark’s Bluetooth range is 30 feet
- The Whistle 3’s range is 50 feet
- The Daxin Smart Bluetooth Tracer claims up to 75 feet.
- The Findster Duo+ can use long-range Bluetooth in remote areas for up to 3 miles.
However, it can depend on the strength of the signal and not all devices specify their Bluetooth range.
Devices that work on Wi-Fi alone help keep tabs on your dog indoors. But, if you leave to go on a walk, know that it will only update once you have gotten back in the Wi-Fi range.
So, let's look at the potential benefits of activity trackers and why you may want to use them.
The purpose of dog activity trackers
There are three main reasons you may want to purchase a pet activity tracker. These are:
- keeping track of their daily activity,
- finding them if they get lost, or
- monitoring their behavior to pick up on health concerns early.
Having reviewed the available science and researched the most popular trackers, we can have a look at how well these devices work for these three uses.
Use Case #1: Activity Monitors and tracking exercise
Perhaps the first reason anybody gets an activity monitor is to ensure they are giving their pet the amount of exercise they need. Perhaps your puppy is a little pudgy and needs to drop a few pounds, or you want to check if your Vizsla or Border Collie is keeping up with other dogs of their breed and age.
But if you want to check how active your dog is, wearables can be both helpful and misleading. One of the issues is the lack of independent data to verify their claims. Also, it isn't always clear what their standards are and how they set their metrics.
For instance, a recent study shows that the Fitbark 2 is pretty good at exploring a room off-leash. However, it isn't nearly as accurate when a dog is on a leash. Similarly, it’s unclear how accurate these devices are if a dog is running about outside.
Dog activity trackers and point systems
The Fitbark awards "BarkPoints" for activity. According to their website, BarkPoints are how the FItbarks measures a dog's physical activity into "activity counts" over a minute. The more the sensor moves in a minute, the more points a dog collects. Other activity trackers have their own point systems. A device can award a dog points for panting, as this could as movement.
The problem is, do these points actually mean anything?
As we measure our own fitness with gadgets and apps, it's only natural that we begin to do it with our dogs. But scoring a certain number of BarkPoints or other points doesn’t guarantee health, or even accurately measure your dog’s fitness.
For companies, these point systems are a convenient alternative to providing actual measures of distance traveled that can be verified. They are saved the hassle of providing accurate data and simply award points with no real value instead.
At best, these point systems are motivators for owners to exercise their dogs more. One benefit of these devices is that that they positively impact pet owners' motivation to increase their pet's activity levels. However, owners often lose interest in their monitors because the data is often difficult to interpret and understand. Just like our own fitness, it's daily habits rather than devices that help us maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Furthermore, individual reviewers cite a lack of accuracy as being one of the key reasons they abandoned their device.
How much can we trust the information from dog activity trackers?
The Fitbark also collects a lot of information worldwide. This information is interesting, but it shouldn't be confused with hard data. There simply isn’t conclusive science about how much a Border Collie should sleep or how much exercise a Great Dane should get.
Another device, the FI Smart Dog Collar, sets its goal at 10 000 steps, the recommended amount for humans. It's unclear why this is the recommended step count for dogs. Also, anything can affect your dog's supposed ideal step count, including breed and age. A dog with severe osteoarthritis may need to move far less than 10 000 steps. So a goal of 10 000 steps is extremely misleading for dog owners.
Furthermore, the devices rarely log activity accurately for several reasons. Suppose your tracker only tracks the distance covered and only updates every five minutes. In that case, it might not pick up that your dog has been playing fetch and has been traveling at high speeds within those five minutes.
Many of the devices available, such as the FI smart collar, have no science proving their device is accurate. They also seem to have trouble aggregating steps taken into distance traveled.
How much can a dog run back and forth in five minutes? Only a GPS that updates every 2-3 seconds can give a more accurate reading.
Dog Activity Monitors and Connection
Another failure occurs if your tracker is limited to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. If it is hooked onto your home Wi-Fi, it might not pick up on your dog playing in your own yard.
So, unless you are a tech-head who finds joy in synching your dog's Fitbit with your own, there is little value in tracking your dog’s steps for the sake of exercise goals.
In short, pet parents shouldn’t be fooled by the flashy websites, the mountains of statistics or the “data” claims. Most owners and their vets can monitor their dog's physical fitness and activity just fine without a device to award points.
Use Case #2: Location tracking & preventing losing your dog
Another reason you may want an activity tracker is to track your dog's movement and to potentially find your dog if they are missing.
For some collars, this serves as a separate function that requires an extra monthly fee. You can only activate the Fitbark GPS in the app via subscription. The Whistle 3 requires an AT&T wireless contract, and the FI Smart Collar GPS service also only works with the monthly subscription.
Assuming you pay for the extra service, devices like the Whistle 3 allow you to set up a "safe place" or geofence around your yard that requires GPS tracking. The device should then notify you if your dog leaves the yard.
It's certainly helpful if you have a rough idea of where your dog might be, should they go missing. The problem here is accuracy. If your dog honestly is missing, you might want to know exactly where they are, down to the last foot.
Dog activity tracker GPS and accuracy
The way that most devices work, such as the FI, is that the GPS finds your rough location and closest cell tower. It then sends data to the app and to servers and snaps your site to the nearest street or path to the device's rough location.
So, you simply aren't going to have a precise location for your pet at any specific point. This means your dog can be home and still look like they're frolicking in your neighbor's house on your phone's app.
This is still helpful if you are looking for your pet. But, it becomes a bit more problematic if the device only updates every minute or every five minutes. Most pets can cover a surprising amount of distance in 1 to 5 minutes. So by the time you get to their “location”, they are long gone.
In the case of the Fitbark, which updates every minute and relies on Wi-Fi, it can fail to notify pet parents that the dog has left home until the dog is outside the Wi-Fi range. For pet parents with excellent Wi-Fi coverage, this can be several houses down the block before they receive a notification.
In Fitbark's case, there is also a deliberate one to three-minute delay before it notifies the owner. This is because they wait for multiple pings from cell towers to be sure the dog has actually left home. While this means fewer false alarms from the Fitbark, it can also mean loss of valuable time if your dog has left the yard.
A major drawback for most of these devices is that if you are in a remote area without network coverage, your device will probably be rendered useless, regardless of brand. Devices such as Whistle specifically need AT&T coverage, so living or visiting an area without AT&T won't help your location tracking.
Luckily, if you're an avid hiker or live somewhere remote, there are GPS options that don't rely on cellular networks. Hunters make use of the wearables such as the Garmin Alpha. However, this might be a bit bulky and pricey for the average pet parent.
Best Dog Activity Trackers for GPS surveillance
The Tractive GPS Tracker works over any range and distance. It has two modes for tracking. Default tracking updates every 2-60 minutes, while their “LIVE” tracking mode updates every 2-3 seconds. This can be extremely helpful if your dog is lost, since it is not limited by Bluetooth range and it actually shows your pet’s current location. As a GPS tracker, this is one of the best choices for a pet parent who wants to keep tabs on their dog and ensure they don’t get lost.
Another good option is the Findster Duo+ that does not require cellular service or a subscription. It also updates every five to ten seconds. However, it needs an iPhone or Android 5 or higher and it uses on long-range Bluetooth.
This means the Findster works with a "guardian" that you carry, which communicates directly with the device on your dog. It claims to be able to track a dog about half a mile in an urban area and up to three miles in the open. Note that the Findster can be affected by large objects or bad weather.
In brief, the GPS tracking function is very helpful if you walk your dog off-leash, allow them to roam in unfenced areas or if you have an escape artist Husky who loves to explore.
It’s worth noting that both these trackers do a reasonable job of tracking true measurable activity because they capture actual location and distance traveled. The Tractive app especially is excellent at providing accurate distance data, although it isn’t able to distinguish between a fast-moving dog vs a fast-moving car with a dog inside.
Use case #3: dog activity trackers and canine health metrics
With about 56% of dogs and 60% of cats in the US estimated to be overweight and obese, the emphasis on a healthy diet and exercise regime for our pets is more pressing than ever.
Dog activity trackers promise to help with that problem.
In fact, most actual independent studies of activity tracker studies focus on what they can do for your pet's health rather than the accuracy of the GPS location function. By tracking and logging activity, in theory, a monitor should pick up increases or decreases of specific behaviors that can help identify problems early on.
If a good activity monitor can do what it claims to, it should be able to:
- Pick up on early ear infections by noting an increase in head shaking.
- Warn owners of potential diabetes by picking up if a dog is drinking more water.
- Gather information on possible early signs of osteoarthritis or mobility issues if your dog's activity decreases.
- Log a change in sleeping patterns that may indicate heart or breathing problems. These conditions will disturb a dog's sleep without the owner noticing.
- Pick up on behavioral problems such as separation anxiety if your dog's activity dramatically increases when you leave home.
- Signal skin issues by noticing if increases in licking and scratching.
- Roughly estimate your dog's calorie intake and use, provided you load their feed intake and snacks into the relevant apps.
All of these are pretty dramatic game changes in the pet world. By looking at the potential health benefits, one wonders, if anything, why isn't there more hype?
Well, right off the bat, claims of calories burned need to be taken with a pinch of salt. To really be accurate about calories, these companies would need an extraordinary database of all the foods you might feed your dog. They also require knowledge about your dog's individual metabolism and be able to accurately measure your dog’s activity, which is rarely the case.
The science on dog activity trackers and health
One of the problems is finding external studies that back up company claims. One study on the PetDialog+ powered by Oggi, Zoetis attempted to verify how good the device was at classifying eight different behaviors, including sleeping, headshaking, eating, and drinking.
The results were somewhat mixed. This particular wearable struggled to tell whether a dog was sleeping or just laying still. Drinking and eating were sometimes labeled as being static or inactive. Other studies on other devices show that factors such as the dog being on a leash, tail wagging, or chewing on chewing a toy can affect how the wearable interprets behavior.
Still, when it comes to tracking behaviors such as scratching or signs of decreased activity over time, some of the wearables can be helpful. Whistle 3 claims to have 150 sensors that measure a dog's movement every second. FitBark doesn't specify how many sensors it has but claims it is "research-grade" and monitors behaviors such as sleep and scratching.
A study on the PetPace monitor notes that the device records heart rate and respiration rate and uses acoustic sensors. This means it cannot effectively take these measurements if the dog is not resting, barking, or if the collar is not fitted correctly. Unless otherwise stated, it can be assumed that any device that uses similar technology to track a pet's heart and respiration rate might have the same limitations.
So what's the verdict? Will activity trackers help your dog's health?
Ultimately, the health of your dog is always going to be up to you. You are the one who will see your dog every day, and you probably don't need an app to tell you if your dog is not eating or acting strangely.
But that doesn't mean that the devices have no value.
Taken over a period of time, an adequately tested wearable can pick up if your dog is moving less over the past six months or drinking significantly more water. These might be such gradual changes that you do not notice them, but they can be indicators of severe health issues.
These devices do exist in the medical world to an extent. One study shows preliminary evidence that the Actiwatch® could be assessing a skin condition called pruritus. Another study backs this claim, although it's important to note that the monitors used only pick up if the dog is moving more at night, not if the dog is specifically scratching.
Another study that did not specify which accelerometer is used, concluded that activity monitors could be helpful in assessing how well a dog responded to treatment for osteoarthritis. The activity monitor did show that dogs treated for pain did increase their activity levels. So, while nothing is conclusive, there may be some therapeutic value in activity monitors, especially as dogs begin to age.
Nevertheless, if health is your main reason for purchasing an activity tracker, ensure the company can provide you with the data that proves their efficacy.
Subscriptions and service fees for the most popular devices:
Finally, many doggy "Fitbits" require various subscriptions and even separate LTE contracts. Separate LTE contracts are needed for tracking dogs in real-time, so only buy a device that does this, such as the Tractive GPS that has live tracking and updates every 2 -3 seconds. Since this is an extra cost that affects the consumer, we listed the devices mentioned in this article and their requirements.
- The basic Fitbark and Fitbark 2 require no subscriptions or service fees. However, the Fitback GPS service (only available in the US) does require a subscription.
- PetPace requires a subscription, and collected data is only available via the downloaded app on iOS or Android devices.
- AKC link collar requires a two-year AT&T contract with a monthly subscription fee. It also needs a downloadable app for iOS or Android devices.
- Tractive requires an added subscription plan for the GPS service.
- Whistle 3 requires AT&T's wireless coverage and a monthly subscription plan available in the app. No separate cellular contract is required.
- Fi requires a monthly subscription and is added to a low-power device to an LTE-M network. It can work without the subscription, but only if your dog stays within range.
- Findster Duo+ does not require a subscription or cellular service. The Findster App is only compatible with iOS or Android 5 or higher.
- Poof activity tracker does not require a subscription but needs an iOS or Android that runs Bluetooth 4.0 or higher.
The claims made by most pet activity trackers are a bit inflated. Monthly subscriptions, reliance on cellular networks, or even the need to be in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi range can be a nuisance and even unnecessary.
The GPS function can help find a lost dog, but few devices are accurate enough to make this useful. If this is the main reason you want a tracker, then picking one that updates every 2-3 seconds and provides the CURRENT location of your pet is advisable. It’s also advisable to pick a tracker that is not range limited, meaning you will probably have to purchase an LTE subscription. The Tractive GPS is our clear winner.
Using wearables to track your dog's activity shouldn't be necessary, except as a possible motivator. Together, you and your vet should be able to set healthy activity goals for your dog based on its individual needs. Just looking at your dog's physical shape will tell you more about their fitness levels than a tracker.
Finally, trackers can help pick up on health problems, provided they measure behavior correctly. Some studies show that some of them, such as FitBark and PetPace, are reasonably good at identifying key behaviors. This can help pick up if your dog begins headshaking, drinking, or dropping in their activity level over time. So long as you keep up with what is normal for your dog, these kinds of behavior changes can be significant to your dog's health.