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As a pet owner and staff member at the DIBS dog rescue, one of Mary Lessard’s biggest fears is losing one of the organization’s rescue dogs or her own furry friends.

DIBS dog rescue uses Tractive smart collars to keep track of the 200 dogs they rehome annually. The collar uses GPS tracking to trace their location should they go missing.HANDOUT

That fear came true when an adoptee frantically called DIBS after their new family member went missing. Thankfully, the rescue, which rehomes dogs from Mexico and has foster homes in the Greater Toronto Area and cities in Ontario, had previously instituted a policy of maintaining Tractive smart collars for each of their pooches. The adopted dog was found within two days.

However, the experience left a mark o Lessard. “I immediately phoned Tractive saying: ‘Send me one,’ " for her own dogs, she says. The pain and panic of losing a pet, she says, is “a horrible feeling of not knowing.”

Wearable tech that tracks location, distance and health aren’t just for humans anymore as smart collars and other tech-assisted pet accessories have cropped up in the pet market.

Lessard, the Tractive lead at DIBS, says the organization partnered with the smart collar company to make sure all 200 dogs they rescue annually can be tracked, from the moment they arrive in Canada through their stay with foster parents and eventual rehoming.

“We were looking for something to keep our dogs safe,” she says, after one of their rescues ran off and couldn’t be found three years ago. Families who adopt from DIBS must agree to at least a one-year subscription to the collar and its app “with the understanding that, hopefully by a year or so, the dog would have settled in and not be a flight risk.”

Smart collars are far from the only tech-assisted pet product on the market, says Phil Cooper, a pet industry consultant based in Sacramento, Calif. The work-from-home pivot of COVID-19 spiked pet ownership in Canada; an Abacus Data survey estimates 900,000 Canadians got a new pet. With people now returning to the office, they are turning to AI-assisted cameras and other app-operated products to care for their pets from afar.

“The camera-side of the business has really grown,” Cooper says. Cameras can track pets and send notifications through a mobile app, where owners can dispense treats or receive emergency warnings if something goes awry at home. a laser pointer toy to keep cats entertained and chasing red dots around the living room. Meanwhile, automated kibble bowls can dispense predetermined portions at a programmed time.

The pet industry, Cooper says, is massive. According to the American Pet Products Association, over US$120-billion was spent in 2021 on pet products in the U.S. alone, mostly in food, supplies, medicine and veterinary services.

“We’re an industry that is pretty recession proof,” Cooper says, pointing to record growth even during the height of pandemic lockdowns. “We’re outperforming Wall Street, we’re outperforming most investments because of the growth of the industry,” he says.

As a market segment, Cooper estimates the pet tech market is currently worth around US$100-million, with plenty of room to grow. “I don’t think it’s become as big as it can be because there’s a small percentage of people, I’d say under 5 per cent, who’ve embraced the technology.” But, for Cooper, that means there’s for market penetration.

Fuelling the growth are millennials, who have come to embrace the ‘fur baby’ phenomenon. Jonathan Bensamoun, founder and chief executive officer of the Fi smart collar, says “with the millennial generation, you’re seeing the dog coming before the partner and before the kid. It’s happening even earlier in their lifecycle that they start owning dogs and consider them their kid. I’m in that bucket – we just spend whatever we have on these dogs to provide them their best life.”

However, for the size and growth of the industry, Cooper has seen thousands of products come and go. He says the biggest opportunities for these products are in collecting and tracking health data: everything from steps and exercise to the volume of food and water consumed.

“The cameras and the smart collars especially can be [connected] with a smartphone and can be transferred to your veterinarian. So, with one click, you’ve got all your medical information on your phone,” he says.

Health data is an area for expansion at Fi, Bensamoun says, as the company is already tracking the amount of sleep dogs get. By collecting data from thousands of dogs who use Fi, Bensamoun says these metrics can provide averages and aggregate data for different breeds.

“My six-year-old German Shepherd is 95 pounds. It’s very useful for me to see how his activity or his sleep compares to other German Shepherds on the network. It gives you a frame of reference,” he says.

For the future, Bensamoun considers the implications of using Big Data to better assess the health of pets. “What if I can tell you whether the dog is stressed by just reading his body language?” he asks. “There are machine learning engines and algorithms that are pretty good at building these models where we’re able to raise a flag for you and say: ‘Hey, do you want to go check this? Something is weird.’ "

While smart collars and pet tech have the promise of tracking health or offering new ways to engage remotely with your pet, the key allure for users like Lessard is the safety and peace of mind they can offer.

“When it comes down to it, this is more than just that cute coat you’re buying for your dog or the extra toys – it’s about keeping them safe,” she says. “If you can find a dog in an hour, as opposed to three or four days of being out [in the] elements, having to search for them and deal with the anxiety that people go through, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”