A hand is holding a cell phone with a dog's face on it.

To think that all these years we’ve just had regular old dumb homes. Now, with the advent of “smart” devices and their integration into our daily lives, we have “smart” homes: digital hubs that access and play music, thermostats that you can program from your phone, and doorbells with cameras you can watch while you’re at work. This is a new era, promising greater accessibility, greater customization of our personal spaces, and an easier life. It only makes sense, then, that companies would attempt to smarten up another aspect of home life: pet ownership.

Recently, a Silicon Valley start-up announced it was relocating to Kansas City, bringing around 200 jobs with it. What are they making? You guessed it: smart collars. That got us thinking about the possible pros and cons of smart collar tech. So let’s look at it and see what helps us, and what might hinder us in the long run.

Cost

The first thing I noticed when researching smart collars is that they aren’t cheap. We aren’t saying that they need to be; a lot of this tech isn’t super cheap. But it creates a higher barrier to entry for low-income folks who might actually make the best use of the technology. The ability to track your dog via GPS would be very helpful for someone whose dog gets out because they have a fence they can’t afford to get fixed, for example.

This isn’t an uncommon issue in animal welfare, to be honest. Society sets expectations of what “responsible” ownership looks like, and includes in those expectations a level of care that isn’t always financially possible for some pet owners. But those folks love their pets just as much as anyone else. It’s one of the things we see every single day in our work.

Features

Some smart collars aren’t actually collars at all; they’re devices that attach to your pet’s collar. But new collars are being developed that contain everything, and in fact are modular: you can choose what features you want by adding modules to the collar itself.

So what kind of features can you expect from a smart collar?

Activity and pet health tracking – this varies from device to device, from manually entering exercise data into an app, to smart functionality that tracks your pet’s activity and gives you suggestions on how to help them get healthier. Like most attempts to bring data tracking into the modern era, you could track all this yourself with a pen and paper, but being able to organize and export data and see at a glance is a pretty helpful thing, especially with pet obesity on the rise.

GPS – Hooray! GPS tracking! Except that with most smart collars, that level of tracking requires a monthly subscription. Not all of them, but most of them. However, even with breakthroughs in battery tech, that collar won’t stay powered up forever. Not to mention that collars can break, rendering tracking… well, useless, basically. We aren’t against GPS for this purpose, really, but it should definitely be supplemented with a good old-fashioned microchip, which does NOT use GPS, but also doesn’t need an internal power source to be scanned, and is literally under your pet’s skin, so it’s not going to get lost.

Feedback – This is the one that’s the most controversial. Not all smart collars have this, but some absolutely do. They buzz or vibrate or flash when your pet leaves a certain area, or even when your cat scratches something that’s off limits. There’s also ones that use aversion training to teach dogs not to bark. Studies show that this method isn’t any more effective than behavioral training. It’s been found to increase stress levels in pets, but also, if not triggered correctly, to not really correlate the unwanted behavior with the negative stimuli, in which case, what’s the point?

One of the things we stress the most here at SNKC is education. When people come to us asking about declawing cats because of unwanted scratching behavior, we help them understand why a cat does that, why declawing can cause long-lasting problems, and how you can work with your cat to redirect that behavior. This solves the problem in most cases, but it also gives the pet owner a good foundation on which to build a better understanding of their pet and its behavior.

Like most new tech meant to make things easier, smart collars solve some problems but it can’t solve them all and is not a replacement for good training backed by positive reinforcement. Learning about your pet’s behavior and how to work with them is one of the most important things you can do as a pet owner. It increases communication and understanding. Smart collars seem like they have some good features, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking critically about what they offer to us as pet owners.

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