I don’t own a fitness tracker, but my dog does.
While we’re all quantifying ourselves in the hopes of being more in shape and finding some sort of enlightenment through our commitment to health and physical activity, I’ve patiently abstained. My health is a state of mind, and I know once I start putting numbers behind my activity and software begins serving up goals, insurmountable self-competition will set in, and reaching my FitBit points target will be yet another item for the to-do list, and excuses will be made when I can’t get there. Yet when it comes to managing the health, well-being, and—dare I suggest—happiness of someone else, a sense of nurturing altruism kicks in. In my case, that someone else is my dog. Track his daily activity? Be certain what time he got out for his afternoon walk? Sign me up!
Apparently, I’m not alone. I represent one of the 47% of U.S. households with a dog or cat, and might go as far as to say I’m a “pet parent,” a new demographic of middle class citizen who invests heavily in the well-being of a four-legged child. Woofie, my miniature German Shepherd-like mix, has a walker take him to playgroup while I’m at work, takes agility classes, is centrally featured in my Christmas cards. It’s predicted that pet wearables will be the next big way we elevate our mutts to kid status, with this new IoT product line estimated to become a multibillion dollar market.
Two major pet wearable brands, FitBark and Whistle, came on the scene at about the same time. Through some good fortune (and good old social media outreach), I connected with Davide Rossi, co-Founder and CEO of FitBark, who was kind enough to offer me an activity tracker and base station to test in the name of IoT research.
FitBark is a bone-shaped plastic tracker that smartly attaches to a dog’s collar via a small black elastic. (Important to do your homework and look at the various dog personas to match the color tracker you choose with your dog’s personality type—or, at the very least, with the colors on his collar.) The tracker is unobtrusive, stays affixed to the collar, and comes with a USB charger. It syncs via Bluetooth to a mobile app.
The app, which prompts the (human) user to upload a photo of his dog as wallpaper before getting to tracking, sets a daily fitness goal based on the dog’s age, weight, breed, and other demographic data that is input upon startup. Periods of rest, activity, and play are tracked on a graphic meant to resemble a dog paw. A glimpse into the activity levels of similar dogs, intended as points of comparison, will soon be an available feature.
Within a few days of connecting my canine, I found us tacking on time to our weekday night walks, moving up and down the block until we reached our goal. I was eager to test weekday versus weekend activity, since my hunch was that our Saturday afternoon hikes at the Middlesex Fells yielded some serious surges in activity. I wanted to know if Woofie was more active during the week, when professional dog walkers take him out during the lunch hour, or on weekends, when I commit to spending a good amount of time with him outdoors.
I started seeing patterns—when we had light activity days, he was extra energetic around the house at bedtime, wanting to bite my ankles rather than let me turn in to prepare for the next workday. When he spent the day around people in the house, he was constantly active, versus the fifteen hours or so he’d spend sleeping on a typical day. I felt hyper-aware of my dog’s activity levels—and it didn’t seem all that strange.
My biggest moments of dog-related anxiety occur when I’m not with Woofie, so the promise of remote monitoring (which the IoT can sometimes offer to people to help their relatives with medication adherence, for example) felt important. What I didn’t realize with the tracker (which syncs with a smartphone via Bluetooth), was that I could not check in on my pup without being within a few feet of him. Enter the WiFi base station, which does the Bluetooth sync with the device, then updates the mobile app, so I can check in while on-the-go. When I’m away for a weekend and he’s staying with my parents, I pack the base station, along with his kibble and dog bed and, voilà!, we stay connected.
Checking Woofie’s stats has become a bit of a reflex—for better or worse. It offered me comfort a couple of months ago when he had a dental surgery, and I was able to assess how quickly he moved back to his usual activity patterns. I feel generally accomplished as a pet parent knowing my dog gets a consistent amount of exercise. While I don’t beat myself up every time we don’t meet a daily goal, I keep in mind how emotionally balanced he seems when we do stay active, and strive to maintain that balance when I can. I don’t even need to check the FitBark app now to know his quantity of daily activity; I’m acutely aware of it from having measured it for a handful of weeks.
My suspicion is I’m among a growing population of IoT users who is thinking about how connectivity can actually be meaningful. I don’t want to quantify every aspect of my own life, but when I’m focused on the health and well-being of someone I care for (although that someone isn’t human), I find more value in internet-connected products.
I recently spoke with FitBark co-founder Rossi, a mechanical engineer with a background in design. After spending some time getting used to the product, I wanted to dig into the reason he started a pet wearable company. The business reasons were clear: one in every two active households has a dog, and Gen Y’s conscious decisions to raise pet children before human children offers a market for a pet fitness tracker. On the emotional side, “When we help our dogs be healthy, we’re more likely to achieve our own goals,” Rossi told me. Further, “Helping others makes us happy, and we become more active in the process of supporting the activity levels of our peers.”
There is certainly a more emotional connection that prompts people to purchase his tracker. We pet parents are a sensitive bunch! “It’s not a market that you win with features,” Rossi noted in support of this more emotional behavior driving product sales. He continued, “It’s a market that you win with connections with customers and experience,” citing the collaborative events FitBark has hosted alongside another company which sells a seemingly competitive tracker.
I learned some other interesting nuggets of information during our chat—like Rossi’s sister Sara was the marketing mastermind behind the website’s stunning pet photography, and her professional history involves launching major U.S. brands, such as Hawaiian Tropic and Schick razors, in the Italian market—but found we spent much of the conversation talking about my own use cases for the tracker. I wanted to share Woofie and my wins and seek intel on upcoming features, to better improve our future experience with the product.
At the culmination of our call, Rossi concluded: “I’m excited about…the aspect of content creation and people telling stories about how they use our product. That’s the best type of marketing you can do.”
Pet parents, you can find the FitBark for sale on the company’s website, as well as Target, Amazon, and Best Buy.
This post by Allison Ryder originally appeared on Continuum Innovation.