High-Tech Companion Animals

Bamboo tracking bubbles on my screen-saver

Bamboo tracking bubbles on my screen-saver

In any given week I read a diverse collection of animal- and science-related newsletters and articles, many of which include links to other resources. As our own lives have become more high-tech, so have our pets’. It wasn’t that long ago that high-tech meant that your dog had a leather collar and matching leash instead of one made from clothes line Mom donated and a clip from who-knows-where that Dad found in his toolbox. Those with the money might have a dog whistle but the majority of us did our whistling au naturel. But over time pet-related products have become more sophisticated and in many cases expensive. More troubling, their appearance seems to coincide with the evolution of a more remote relationship with our pets, and especially our dogs.

For example, it’s now possible to at least pretend to train a dog and not get anywhere near the animal by using a variety of remote devices that discipline the animal in one way or another. Some systems enable users to create the illusion that their dogs are boundary-trained—at least as long as the dog’s wearing the collar, the power source to the buried containment system is working, and the frustrated dog hasn’t learned to run through the barrier. Nor do those who use bark collars need to be around to “train” their dogs not to bark either. Just set the collar to shock or blast the dog with an irritating scent if the dog dares bark or barks more than an acceptable number of times. That’ll teach him. Well, maybe. But if the underlying cause of the barking stresses the dog sufficiently, he or she may  switch to aggression when the more benign stress-relieving barking channel is blocked.

There are three perceived benefits of these devices. Their use requires no knowledge of normal animal behavior, let alone that associated with problem displays. Second, they enable users to remove themselves from a more intimate hands-on human-animal training process. And third, users can pretend that they play no part in their animal’s pain and discomfort. Had Chippie not barked at the letter carrier, the device wouldn’t have punished her. Even so, most of these people will admit that the device didn’t result in a positive experience for the animal. For those who prefer a more positive remote experience, there’s also at least one system that dispenses treats remotely.

Another group of technological wonders allows those who want to keep track of their animals (more or less) without leaving the comfort of their living rooms to do so. A variety of collars with built-in GPS tracking technology now enables them to do that. If you’re so inclined and live in an area where the service is offered, you even can track your dog-walker walking your dog. For those who want to visually accompany their pets on their remote travels, a variety of cameras can be attached to the animal’s collar or inserted in camera-holding pet harnesses for your viewing enjoyment.

Other technology will play with our dogs if we’re too tired to do this. Among the first devices in this category were the automatic ball-launchers. More recent entries in this category include high-tech interactive toys often marketed for “bored pets”. This raises the obvious question: How does one know one’s dog is bored in one’s absence? It depends on who’s doing the describing. Stable dogs in stable households often spend most of their time sleeping. If they have toys available, they may amuse themselves at times. The owners of these animals usually don’t worry about their dogs being bored because there’s no reason to. On the other hand, if the dog gets in the garbage, chews socks and undies or counter surfs, these stress-related behaviors may be attributed to boredom. In that case, these toys may have one of two paradoxical effects. Some dogs truly may find the play enjoyable and relaxing; they quit after a while and go take a nap. But those same kinds of distractions may cause some vulnerable animals to segue from high-energy play into obsessive-compulsive displays that are anything but fun and relaxing for the animals.

Too tired to whistle to gain Rover’s attention or distract him from undesirable behavior to  when the two of you are together? This app allows you to  summon a variety of whistles from you smart phone. Tired of lugging that clicker everywhere you go? Not to worry. A high-tech answer to that is as near as a smart phone with this app ready to supply clicks at your command.

Another group of technologies allow people to interact with their pets remotely in what they consider a quality way. Some of these appear to be marketed to those whose pets misbehave in their owner’s absence which those folks attribute to the animal not getting enough quality exercise. Others  seem more geared to absentee pet owners who need a dog or cat fix. These devices enable people to use their smart phones to talk to and see their animals, and in some cases to give them treats remotely. Whether any responses attributed to the animals are anthropomorphic projections or reliable indicators of the animal’s state of mind depends on the user’s knowledge of the animal’s species-and breed-specific behaviors plus any individual behaviors, including those unique to that particular animal.

Finally, a growing collection of apps enables users to keep track of everything from their pets’ heart rate and blood pressure to the number of steps the animal takes. While some of these may make judgements or recommendations based on these numbers, always bear in mind that what’s statistically significant for a certain population may or may not be for any one particular animal in it. Similarly, values may differ depending on the particular situation. Other apps claim to help users determine their dogs’ IQ or translate canine verbal and body language expressions to human ones to enhance human-canine communication. Whether they succeed again depends on the quality of the data bases they use. Like human intelligence, animal intelligence is a highly complex and subjective phenomenon that doesn’t lend itself to one-size-fits-all definitions or tests based on those definitions. Theoretically, how valid an evaluation of what a particular companion animal’s verbal or body language expressions mean depends on same old, same old:  knowledge of species, breed, age, sexual, individual, environmental and a host of other related factors. On the other hand, if what the user believes the animal is communicating doesn’t undermine their relationship or the animal’s health or behavior, this really doesn’t matter.

Regardless what their creators, I, or anyone else says, none of these technological wonders is perfect or perfectly horrible. All possess the potential to be one or the other for any given animal on any given day. What technology works today may not work tomorrow for our animals, ourselves, or both of us. But from a bond perspective, the important thing is not to substitute technology for intimate real interactions with your animal.  Domestic animals evolved over thousands of years to relate to and bond with living, breathing human beings, not collars with do-dads on them, plastic cubes or itty bitty images on or sounds coming from smart phones. And for heaven’s sake, if you want to punish your dog, have the guts to do it face-to-face so the animal at least knows the source. Don’t hide behind a remote.

Technology is fun, it’s informative, it can simplify our lives in many ways. But at the end of the day, the joy comes from being in the presence of those special animals, a joy that sometimes being apart from them during the day makes that much sweeter. Just us and the animal with no technological or other barriers between us.


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