BLUE SKY THINK­ING

com­pan­ion an­i­mals Keep­ing tabs on the coun­try’s

NZ Life & Leisure - - News - WORDS L UCY CORRY

New Zealand’s great catch- cry used to be that it was a coun­try of three mil­lion peo­ple and 70 mil­lion sheep. While sheep num­bers have greatly di­min­ished in re­cent years, New Zealanders are still out­num­bered by their pets. In 2016, the New Zealand Com­pan­ion An­i­mal Coun­cil re­ported that Aotearoa had a pet pop­u­la­tion of 4.6 mil­lion, with 65 per cent of house­holds in­clud­ing at least one. Th­ese finned and furred friends – cats, dogs, birds, rab­bits and horses among oth­ers – are worth a lot, with de­voted pet own­ers spend­ing an es­ti­mated $1.8 bil­lion on prod­ucts and ser­vices. It’s no won­der some clever New Zealanders are help­ing peo­ple keep tabs on their pets via wearable tech­nol­ogy.

Cats and dogs

When one of his staff mem­bers had to spend a day look­ing for his mother’s miss­ing york­shire ter­rier (only to find it 20 me­tres from home, hid­ing un­der a car), Eric Lin had an epiphany. His Auck­land com­pany Lin­tek al­ready made track­ing de­vices for ev­ery­thing from lug­gage to ve­hi­cle fleets and boats. Why couldn’t it track pets too?

Be­cause they were limited by tech­nol­ogy avail­able at the time, Eric and his team ini­tially de­cided they would de­sign a prox­im­ity alarm that would send an alert to a small re­mote unit if a pet went AWOL.

“We sold a few hun­dred, then re­al­ized there was a real mar­ket,” he says. “All our staff have pets, so we know ex­actly how peo­ple feel when their an­i­mals go miss­ing.”

Now, some seven years af­ter that naughty yorkie ran off, Eric’s spin-off busi­ness Pe­trek of­fers own­ers three ways to keep tabs on pets – us­ing ra­dio fre­quency, GPS and 3G tech­nol­ogy. He says the new­est model, Pe­trek 3G, is the small­est of its kind in the world. The tracker, which weighs just 30 grammes and is fully wa­ter­proof for up to 30 min­utes, works with a mobile app to pin­point the pet’s lo­ca­tion. The app can even

com­pile up to a month’s worth of lo­ca­tion data into a heat map to show where the pet’s favourite se­cret hang­outs are.

“Pets are ha­bit­ual,” Eric says. “Af­ter days and nights of track­ing them you re­al­ize they al­ways go back to the same spots, they al­ways pee be­hind the same tree.” He says 70 per cent of buy­ers are cat own­ers (“cats like to go off on three-day ad­ven­tures”), but they have heard that some peo­ple buy them to keep tabs on hu­man house­hold mem­bers too.

Eric says the track­ers serve sev­eral pur­poses when used for pets – both mon­i­tor­ing the an­i­mals and chang­ing own­ers’ be­hav­iour. “It’s a bit like we are train­ing the own­ers,” he says. “If dogs aren’t walked reg­u­larly, or taken on the same routes, then they go hay­wire and run off to ran­dom places when they do get out.

“We say to own­ers that when the dog is walked reg­u­larly, es­pe­cially on the same routes, the tracker will show that if it does es­cape then it will go to the same spots and find its own way home. So it re­minds peo­ple that they need to get out more with their pets, and it also gives them more trust in them. Hav­ing a tracker makes peo­ple feel less in­se­cure about hav­ing their an­i­mal wan­der off.

“Peo­ple start to treat the tracker like it’s their dog’s smart­phone,” he laughs. “You know how peo­ple keep track of their kids with their phones? That’s what they are like with the track­ers. If our app is down for main­te­nance or some­thing is be­ing fixed, peo­ple panic about their an­i­mals even if they’re in the next room.”

‘Peo­ple start to treat the tracker like it’s their dog’s smart­phone’

Keep­ing tabs

While the Pe­trek prod­ucts con­cen­trate on an an­i­mal’s where­abouts, a Welling­ton-based com­pany is more con­cerned with track­ing well­ness.

The Heyrex wearable mon­i­tor col­lects data that can be used to help vets and own­ers pro­vide bet­ter care for pets. The mon­i­tor, of­ten dubbed the Fit­bit for Dogs, owes its ex­is­tence to David Gib­son. The Karori sci­en­tist and dog lover started work­ing on a pro­to­type ver­sion back in 2004, keen to de­vise a way that would help peo­ple un­der­stand their an­i­mal’s be­hav­iour and health. But he died in 2011 be­fore his in­no­va­tion could be prop­erly com­mer­cial­ized.

“David’s idea was be­fore its time,” ex­plains Heyrex chief ex­ec­u­tive Nathan Lawrence. “His vi­sion and his un­der­stand­ing of what could be achieved is some­thing we’ve fol­lowed all the way through, even though tech­nol­ogy changes so quickly.”

Heyrex mon­i­tors record and col­late un­in­ter­rupted, real-time data on an­i­mal be­hav­iour, such as health is­sues, ex­er­cise lev­els, scratch­ing and sleep qual­ity. The unit, which clips to a dog’s col­lar, “talks” to a base sta­tion (like a cell­phone tower) in the home or a vet clinic, which then sends no­ti­fi­ca­tions of any changes or prob­lems. The mon­i­tor has a min­i­mum two-year bat­tery life and doesn’t need to be recharged.

While the prod­uct was ini­tially aimed at help­ing vets man­age pre- and post-op­er­a­tive care, the mon­i­tors are now avail­able for own­ers who want to be proac­tive about their pet’s health. Nathan won’t dis­close spe­cific num­bers, but says that thou­sands of Heyrex mon­i­tors have gone into the mar­ket, es­pe­cially in the United States.

The al­go­rithms driv­ing the data col­lec­tion are de­signed for dogs, but Nathan says the mon­i­tors are be­ing used for other an­i­mals – Syd­ney Univer­sity uses them to study the habits and mo­bil­ity of tigers, for ex­am­ple, while Amer­i­can re­searchers are us­ing them on cat­tle.

In New Zealand, 150 dogs have been fit­ted with the mon­i­tors as part of a re­search project by Vetlife and Massey Univer­sity’s Work­ing Dog Cen­tre (see right). Tech­nol­ogy, both wearable and oth­er­wise, is go­ing to change the way pets are cared for, Nathan says.

“We’re go­ing to have so much more un­der­stand­ing of things like how pain af­fects an­i­mals and how we can help. I think tech­nol­ogy will also have a huge im­pact on dis­abled an­i­mals, with things like stem-cell re­search. An­i­mals are go­ing to fol­low all the devel­op­ments in hu­man science.”

It’s a dog’s life

New Zealanders love ca­nine com­pan­ions. Nearly 30 per cent of New Zealand house­holds keep an es­ti­mated 700,000 of them as pets, and there are about 200,000 work­ing dogs putting in the hours for hu­man mas­ters. While work­ing dogs per­form crucial roles for law en­force­ment and emer­gency ser­vices, not to men­tion as guide an­i­mals, the ma­jor­ity of the lo­cal dog work­force is found on farms.

Thanks to ad­vances in wearable tech­nol­ogy, re­searchers at Massey Univer­sity’s Work­ing Dog Cen­tre are hop­ing to learn more about farm dog be­hav­iour, ac­tiv­ity and well­be­ing. The project, A year in the life of a work­ing dog, is part of Team­Mate, a five-year ob­ser­va­tional study of 700 work­ing dogs run by Vetlife vet clin­ics.

Dogs on 50 South Is­land farms will have Heyrex mon­i­tors fit­ted to their col­lars to cap­ture their be­hav­iour, sleep pat­terns, tem­per­a­ture and ac­tiv­ity. This in­for­ma­tion, along with phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions done as part of the Team­Mate study, will give re­searchers new in­sights into the lives of th­ese hard-work­ing an­i­mals.

“With­out the wearable tech, we had no way of re­ally know­ing what was hap­pen­ing,” ex­plains Dr Naomi Cog­ger, di­rec­tor of Massey Univer­sity’s Work­ing Dog Cen­tre. “For the first time ever, we are go­ing to be able to have re­ally de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about health prob­lems en­coun­tered by work­ing farm dogs – how much time they spend run­ning, and walk­ing and scratch­ing, whether they are cold or hot at night. We’re so ex­cited about it. It means we will be get­ting high-qual­ity data that could not be repli­cated any other way, with min­i­mal in­ter­ven­tion from the farmer’s per­spec­tive.

“It means the po­ten­tial to im­prove dog health and well­be­ing is huge.”

While robotic com­pan­ion an­i­mals are start­ing to ap­pear overseas, Naomi doesn’t think they pose a threat to how New Zealanders re­late to dogs. “If you think about po­lice and de­tec­tion dogs, a good one can be out de­tect­ing 100 dif­fer­ent scents at the same time. It would be very dif­fi­cult for a robot to be pro­grammed to do that at the same speed.

“I don’t think it’s likely to hap­pen with farm dogs, ei­ther. Work­ing dogs on farms are think­ing and work­ing with the stock, and re­spond­ing to a very change­able en­vi­ron­ment all the time. It would be very hard to pro­gramme a robot to con­tin­u­ally learn to re­act to stock changes. I see dogs con­tin­u­ing to work for peo­ple for a long time.

“Plus, you can’t cud­dle a robot, can you?”

Nathan Lawrence.

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