Lassie Come Home with High Tech?

greyhound dog

Every day, David Moore takes his two Norwegian Elkhounds, Victoria and Liza, for a lakeside walk in a wooded area near his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. The two rambunctious dogs often run off by themselves to sniff everything in sight, but they always return back to the house safe and sound. Always, that is, until recently. “After a half hour or so, Victoria showed up, but no Liza,” Moore says. “They always stick together and so I was a little concerned about Liza.”

Preparing for the worst, Moore previously had bought a global positioning system device called GlobalPetFinder, which functions like a cell phone that a dog wears around its neck. Moore logged into the device and, within a few minutes, he received an e-mail with a map showing him that Liza was 1,321 feet southwest of his home. “I was a little skeptical about finding her there,” Moore says, “but off I went and much to my surprise and gratitude, there she was messing about on the riverbank exactly as indicated on the map!”

Moore’s story suggests that such high tech devices could permanently resolve the problem of lost dogs. But this begs other questions, such as how these gadgets work, what their pitfalls are, and which one, if any, is best for you and your dog.

GPS for Canines
GlobalPetFinder was “an invention out of necessity,” shares company spokeswoman Tammy Smart. In 2005, its inventor, Jennifer Martucci, was a single mother with two kids and two dogs that all liked to wander. Tired of worrying about them, she latched onto the idea that cell phone technology could be used to track dogs, just as it helped her to stay in touch with her children.  

Users purchase a collar device for around $300 at the GlobalPetFinder web site and pay for a one time activation fee, as well as monthly service plans just under $20 per month. In return, they receive two-way wireless technology that permits them to monitor their dog’s whereabouts at all times using a cell phone or computer. Virtual fences can be set up, so that if your pet wanders outside of a pre-established zone, you will receive notification via a text message or e-mail.

“It’s given peace of mind to busy families, people who travel a lot and to pet sitters,” Smart says. “It puts control into the owner’s hands.”

Radio Frequency Collars
Radio frequency devices offer another way of keeping track of your dog. These gadgets, also worn on a dog collar, utilize telemetry -- remote transmission of your dog’s location -- and radio frequency, which is picked up in a handheld receiver. This technology has been around for quite a while. Manufacturers, such as Tracker, Garmin and Marshall, have marketed the devices for hunters with dogs, search and rescue dog units and the military, but potentially they could help out other dog owners too. Radio frequency collar kits are available through stores and web sites for sportsmen and hunters. The kits cost anywhere from around $500 to close to $1,000, depending on the manufacturer, the device’s range and its reception.

Just as store products carry specific identification numbers, dogs can be named and numbered with an under-the-skin microchip implant. The chips have been in use since 1991 but, just last year, the American Kennel Club’s Companion Animal Recovery service launched a new and improved chip.

“It’s made out of bioglass [a manufactured material utilized to repair damaged or diseased bone] and the chip is smaller,” explains Allison Kahn, a company representative. “It’s much smaller than other chips and it has no coating, no lead or any other hazardous material. In fact, similar chips have been approved for human locator use, such as in military applications.”

You can sign up for the AKC’s service through your veterinarian. Costs vary to have the chips implanted, but often the amount is less than $100. For a one-time fee of $12.50, you can then, through the American Kennel Club’s Companion Animal Recovery web site, join the related network that will inform you if another veterinarian, animal control unit or shelter has scanned and then identified your dog. “Almost all rescue centers have the ability to read microchips,” explains Kahn. “Believe me, they don’t want your dog there eating up their limited resources.” She says the program is so successful that lost dogs are recovered every seven minutes across the U.S.

Weighing the Options
Given all of these choices and more, choosing the right system requires a fair amount of forethought and homework. Since radio frequency collars require that users carry a special receiver, such collars may not provide the best solution for most dog owners. Below, however, are some of the pros and cons for GPS and microchip systems.

GPS Pros:

  • It puts owners directly in touch with their dogs at any given instant.
  • According to Smart, certain breeds, such as Siberian huskies, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, bull terriers and Saint Bernards, tend to wander a lot, so GPS can be a boon to owners of these meandering mutts.
  • Because the systems carry information over to cell phones and computers, owners can incorporate the devices with existing equipment.
  • Unlike walkie-talkie type radio signals, information will be transmitted so long as the area has cell phone coverage.

GPS Cons:

  • The collar device runs on batteries that can run out if not charged.
  • It can be pricier than other alternatives.
  • Dogs need to weigh 30 pounds or more, since the collar mechanism weighs just less than 5 ounces.
  • Although the gadget is water resistant to rain, it may not work should your dog decide to go for a swim. An upgraded model may address that issue in future.

Microchip Pros:

  • A chip offers a permanent solution to the problem, since it requires no batteries, maintenance or regular monitoring.
  • It’s relatively inexpensive.
  • The AKC reports that it has tracked dogs deemed dead (or stolen) after many years. “One New York City dog went missing for four years before it was determined that it had been stolen and then resold,” says Kahn. “You can imagine how relieved the original owners were to find out the dog was OK.”

Microchip Cons:

  • Users must trust that someone down the line will take the time to read the chip and attempt to reunite dog with owner.
  • You cannot track your dog’s whereabouts yourself.
  • They require a minor medical procedure to insert the chip.

The best of all possible worlds, Kahn suggests, would be to get a microchip, join the Companion Animal Recovery service and look into a GPS system for your dog. “If the owner could afford that option,” she explains, “it would cover all bases.”