I’ve been a FitBit user since 2013. When my dog is off a leash, I have often wondered at the total distance of his adventures as he often runs ahead and doubles back in time when hiking, and often checks in with me. If my FitBit says I hiked six miles, then how far did Saber go if he was spending most of his time running back and forth? I don’t really need to know, but I was always curious.
For this and other reasons, I took the opportunity to research and test a few consumer animal health and activity trackers: Whistle Go Explore and FitBark GPS.
FITNESS NOT ABSENT
While many dog owners are drawn to these products in an attempt to find a dog that may have escaped, this is not their best use (see “Technology Is Not a Substitute for Training and / or Management,” page 19). The products are better at monitoring (and arguably more valuable) for monitoring and tracking a dog’s overall activity. This has many uses:
* Setting and helping meet daily pet exercise goals – especially useful when trying to help your dog shed a few pounds or improve his or her general condition.
* Better understanding when your dog is most active when you are away from home. In some cases, activity patterns can be linked to health or behavioral problems that are otherwise difficult to monitor when you are away.
* Know when the dog walker is arriving and how long your dog has been walking.
* Know how often your dog is up at night. Potential health issues or inadequate exercise and mental stimulation during the day can create restlessness at night that can be overlooked during heavy sleep.
We decided to rate the two best-selling products in this category. The choice was also based in part on the time their manufacturers had invested in further developing the products (both of which launched in 2013). The products are:
* Whistle Go Explore. This is the newest device in the Whistle line of three products. It follows Whistle Go and offers longer battery life (up to 20 days compared to Whistle Go’s estimated 10 days) as well as an extra light (controlled by the app).
* FitBark GPS. This is one of FitBark’s three health and tracking devices and the only product that offers GPS tracking.
Both devices require an initial purchase price (the Go Explore costs $ 115 to $ 130, the FitBark GPS costs $ 70 to $ 100; both cost less to buy from Amazon.com than their manufacturers) and a subscription fee. Whistle’s plans range from $ 10 per month (paid monthly but with a one-year contract) to $ 7 per month (with a two-year contract that is prepaid). FitBark plans range from $ 10 per month (without a contract) to $ 6 per month (with a three-year contract that is prepaid).
HOW THEY WORK
Both Whistle Go Explore and FitBark GPS are GPS-enabled accelerometers that track the wearer’s movement several times per second and use algorithms to identify movements as specific behavior. Whistle Go Explore identifies movement as resting, active, walking, running or playing and can identify licking and scratching. FitBark identifies movement as resting, active, or playing.
For location tracking, both products are GPS-enabled devices, meaning they use information from cell towers (Whistle uses the ATT network; FitBark uses Verizon) and satellites to triangulate position and transmit data to the user via proprietary apps for mobile devices . This means the trackers will only work in areas with cellular coverage and will be exposed to various conditions that can affect the transmission of cellular wavelengths – from bad weather to tall buildings or competing frequencies.
Both products work essentially the same: if the wearer is in a given “safe zone”, the device connects to a specific WiFi network and synchronizes itself in the background. In our test, I connected each device to both my home WiFi and the WiFi at work, as my dog Saber is often in the office with me.
If the device is removed from or returned to a WiFi-enabled “safe zone”, a warning message is sent. If the device is within Bluetooth range of an authorized person, the warning will indicate who the dog is with.
The devices can be connected to the mobile devices of several authorized persons, which is suitable for custom notifications. For example, if the dog regularly leaves the “safe zone” with a dog walker, connecting the device to the dog walker’s phone will send you a notification that the dog has left with that particular person.
During an authorized adventure, the GPS function reports the location at set intervals as long as the device can determine an exact location. Whistle Go Explore’s reporting interval can be adjusted every 3, 6, 10, 15 or 30 minutes. FitBark reports the location every minute. Activity and location are tracked at set intervals and are visible in real time via the app. When the user returns to the designated WiFi network, the data is synchronized for recording along with a map graphic showing the area covered.
If neither WiFi nor a detected Bluetooth connection is available and the device is outside a “safe zone”, a general warning is sent (“Heads Up! Saber has left Home Sweet Home”) and the tracking function becomes available. If you know the dog is not with an authorized person, the notification will ask you to go into tracking mode and start looking for your dog.
When Whistle Go Explore is in tracking mode, location information is updated every 15 seconds. FitBark will continue to update every minute. However, the location data collected in tracking mode is considered more accurate than the data collected when the tracker is paired with an owner’s mobile device via Bluetooth.
COMPARISON OF PRODUCTS
Although the two products we tested are similar, they both had specific strengths and weaknesses:
* To install. Both products arrived with minimal packaging and set up was quick and easy. The Whistle Go Explore was successfully paired with the corresponding app on my phone during the first charging session, so I could set everything up in one session. The FitBark first had to be charged before it was “visible” to the app on my phone.
Both apps ask for basic information: owner name, phone number and email address; and the dog’s name, breed, age, birthday, reproductive status and weight. Whistle Go Explore also works with the dog’s weight, body rating, and diet details, and uses activity monitoring to recommend daily feeding amounts based on an impressive list of commercial diets. There are no options for dogs on a homemade diet.
* Charge. The Whistle Go Explore uses a standard micro USB cable. The FitBark uses a USB-powered, spring-loaded clip that, when attached, aligns the pins in the cable with the FitBark’s charging points. Finding just what you need is difficult – and if you don’t, the device won’t charge.
It’s also worth noting that in order to access the FitBark’s charging pins, a very tight-fitting cover must first be removed. This is not an easy task and it is unlikely to be done entirely by hand. FitBark even recommends using the handle of a nail clipper to pry the cover off the device. I’m sure this tight fit had to do with maintaining the integrity of the device’s water resistance, but the longer I had the device, the less excited I was about having to pry off the cover.
* Design. The Whistle Go Explore is almost square with a width of 1.4 inches, a height of 1.8 inches, and a thickness of 0.07 inches. The FitBark GPS’s bone-shaped design looks slimmer, 1.86 inches wide, 1.18 inches tall, and 0.61 inches thick. The Go Explore weighs 0.96 ounces; The FitBark weighs 0.60 ounces.
No device seemed to bother Saber while they were on his collar. In fact, he was wearing it both without incident during our eight-week comparison. However, the size of the devices could be an issue in toy breed dogs. Whistle recommends Go Explore for dogs weighing 8 pounds or more. FitBark is recommended for dogs over 5 pounds.
The whistle has a built-in night light that can be activated via the app and always on or set to a slow or fast flash. This can be useful for night walks in dark areas (although it does shorten battery life), but I can see it is especially useful when tracking down a lost pet and getting closer to its location.
* Collar attachment. We strongly preferred the attachment options offered by Whistle Go Explore, which include a semi-permanent snap fastener and a removable Velcro option. Both options have a plastic plate bracket that the device attaches to and rotate to snap into place. This allows for easy removal when the tracker needs charging.
In contrast, the FitBark is attached to the collar with thin, small cable ties. Granted, this makes it next to impossible for the tracker to ever fall off the collar, but it also means you’ll either have to cut it off and reattach it with fresh zip ties (10 additional zip ties are included in the original package), or remove the entire collar for the amount of time it takes to charge the tracker periodically.
* Water resistance. Both devices are supposed to be waterproof, but FitBark recommends removing the cover after playing by the pool or beach to dry the charging pins. Attach the nail clippers to remove the cover!
In contrast, Whistle tech support assured me that the device would withstand an enthusiastic dip in the pool and a fun game at sea, and only warned against repeated sessions in which the device was hit with big waves.
Both devices have been used repeatedly in a pool and the ocean and are still going strong.
* Application reporting. Both devices suggest recommended activity goals based on certain owner-provided details such as age, weight, race, and lifestyle.
Within the app, the Whistle Go Explore dashboard shows the activities chronologically and categorizes movements into activities like resting, low activity (which seemingly casually walking around the house), walking, playing and running. It also includes a snapshot map of the location user traveled away from home.
FitBark’s Activity Dashboard categorizes movement as Rest, Active and Play and shows the total points earned on the goal, with the total time spent on each of the three activities.
Between the two devices, it was generally easier for Whistle to follow the presentation of data. I also noticed that FitBark often recorded the time he spent walking as “playing” or “active”. I would think a walk that offers a steady pace would register differently than a game whose movement is generally very different.
Both dashboards show the estimated calories burned and the total distance traveled. Although they never exactly matched between the two devices, they were so close initially that I felt they were reasonably accurate in data reporting.
* Accuracy / reliability. While the two products reported similar activity and calorie expenditure in the first month, that gradually changed over time. Towards the end of the two-month trial, after a particularly active day, I was surprised to see that FitBark Saber’s activity burned 1,838 calories over 7.72 miles, compared to Whistle’s report of just 1,176 calories over 5 miles.
We have seen other questionable readings as well. There were definitely days when the reported activity was inconsistent with my observations. This was most noticeable during a record breaking heat wave, when we spent the rest of the day lazing quietly in front of the fans while we made it into the park off the leash for 20 minutes in the early morning. Whistle Go Explore recorded enough hours of “low activity” (as opposed to “rest”) and FitBark recorded enough “active” hours to meet the activity goal for the day that I was skeptical about.
Granted, no accelerometer is perfect. My human FitBit often records gestures as steps. passive activity adds up. It’s possible Saber was strolling around the apartment more casually than I realized.
Every product also gave an occasional false positive. FitBark once sent a notification that Saber had left my office while taking a nap on the floor right behind me. When I asked FitBark tech support about this, they said it was likely due to a weak WiFi connection, which led the device to believe that Saber had left the property when it hadn’t. That reported misfire was good for a chuckle when I saw Saber safely dozing nearby, but if he’d been home and I was at work, that slip would have panicked me.
Similarly, the whistle once sent a notification that Saber had arrived at my office (one of our two “safe zones”) while he was in the car with me and we were 15 miles away.
* Technical support. At one point, the Whistle app reported that “not enough data is available” to continue displaying certain health insights. According to support articles on the Whistle website, this usually happens when the device has not been worn for at least four days (it has been worn every day) or when the device is not communicating on the WiFi network.
Whistle customer support is available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST and 10 am to 6:30 pm EST on weekends. When I contacted tech support, the agent helped me resolve the problem, which was actually related to a problem with WiFi communication.
FitBark technical support is available around the clock via the web-based chat function. This is impressive! The FitBark representative answered several questions for me at any time of the day or night during the test period.
At the beginning of our testing phase, the Whistle Go Explore reported that Saber had “increased” scratch and leak levels. These data appeared to be correct, as Saber’s anal glands needed attention at this point. Since he comes to work with me most days, I know when Saber is leaking or scratching, but if he was home alone and I couldn’t monitor it myself, I would find this coverage particularly useful.
About six weeks after our testing began, Whistle added “sleeping” and “drinking” to its reporting, categorizing drinking as below average, average, or above average and sleep as restful, slightly disturbed or disturbed. Historical reports on this information could be very helpful.
Eight vets provide Telistle with telemedicine support. Late on Sunday afternoon, I sent an email with a question about Saber’s leak and anal glands. I received a response early Monday morning and was pleasantly surprised to ask questions to encourage additional dialogue. It wasn’t a canned answer that I should contact my vet to address my concerns.
The telemedicine support feature certainly isn’t a substitute for in-person veterinary care, but it’s a nice perk that supportive guidance could provide.
USING THE ACTIVE GPS TRACKING FUNCTION
To simulate a lost dog scenario, I had friends pick up my dog and take him on an adventure. The Whistle Go Explore was the first to send me a notification that Saber had closed the “safe zone” so I could go into tracking mode within a minute of taking it out of my home.
In contrast, it took a few minutes for the first notification from FitBark to arrive and another minutes for the tracking feature to become available. I kept thinking about how every second counts in a lost dog scenario and was frustrated waiting for FitBark to activate the tracking feature.
When my friends drove around in their car with Saber, I tracked their location using the apps and confirmed the accuracy of the reports by texting my friends. Both devices’ data was interrupted when Saber drove past a nearby radio tower. FitBark stopped a few more times during the test drive.
When my friends and Saber got to their destination, Whistle’s location was so precise that it gave Saber’s exact address and location like it was in the backyard. In contrast, FitBark gave a latitude and longitude and connected to Google Maps to launch directions that took me to my friends. neighbours House.
My friends also took a walk so we could do another test with Saber on foot. With both apps, I could easily see where they were and determine their itinerary. The Whistle Go Explore reports the location every 15 seconds in tracking mode and thus offers a clear advantage in determining the estimated route compared to FitBark’s 60-second reporting.
While testing both machines, I went on a road trip and drove a few hundred miles from home. Both devices were fully charged when we left home on Thursday morning. By late Saturday afternoon, the FitBark battery was less than 10% charged and the Whistle battery was completely discharged, so it shut down. What?!
Both devices rely heavily on WiFi connectivity for battery life to work well. Under normal circumstances, both FitBark and Whistle spent most of the day using WiFi or an owner’s work. They are only separated when the dog is out. For most of us, that’s only a handful of hours, even on a super active day of hiking. A Bluetooth connection to your phone will keep the battery longer than fully disconnected.
If you’ve relied on one of these devices to make sure your dog isn’t lost if he’s separated from you while traveling, you should charge the device regularly – maybe even daily.
After spending two months using Whistle Go Explore and FitBark GPS at the same time, we believe that consumer health and activity trackers are fun devices for tracking and monitoring various health metrics, daily physical activity, and a potential added layer of safety when working with a dog who may have escape artist tendencies.
They are best for dogs that spend most of their time at home or, when they are away, most likely to have a specific “safe person” on a leash, connected to WiFi, or a specific person to keep bluetooth signal. In cases in which the dog and the owner travel (i.e. not in the specified WLAN) or the dog certainly has the opportunity to be on a leash and no longer has Bluetooth Given the range of a retailer’s cell phone, battery life was frustratingly short.
Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer based in Southern California. She works for Guide Dogs of America in the puppy department, where she recruits and manages volunteer puppy breeders.