Smartphones have become the go-to tool for hailing a car and ordering delivery food. But summoning a dog walker? That could take some getting used to.
A growing number of startups offer apps and gadgets that help you take care of your pets. So-called pet tech — yes, it’s a thing — includes automatic treat dispensers, surveillance cameras embedded with laser pointers to remotely play with your pets, and apps that connect you with a dog walker or sitter with the tap of a button.
Be warned: A majority of pet tech products are ineffective gimmicks that probably aren’t worth your money. I tested many and found only several to be occasionally useful: an app for hiring dog walkers, an app for boarding your pet at someone’s house, and a pet location tracker.
What follows are the products that did — and did not — make the cut after I tested them on my pet corgi, Max Fischer, and my cat, Cuddy.
The Best Pet Tech
Of the many pet products I tested, a few stood out: Wag, an app for hiring a dog walker; DogVacay, which is billed as an Airbnb for dog boarding; and Whistle, a tracker for monitoring your pet’s location.
Wag is an app that most dog owners should consider installing on their phones just to have as a backup option. It is the best-designed and most efficient app for summoning a dog walker with some or no advance notice.
The Wag app is surprisingly thorough from the start. After signing up for the service, it asks whether you want to receive a free lock box so that dog walkers can get your house key with a combination code when you aren’t there. I opted to get the lock box, and a courier delivered it a day later. Installing it was a breeze: A text message appeared on my phone with the combination code to open the box; I dropped a spare key into the box and attached it to my door knob.
Where Wag truly shines is the experience of connecting you with a walker. You can book a specific date and time in advance or summon a walker as soon as possible, and the app will match you up with someone who is available. When I chose to book a walk immediately, a walker showed up at my door to fetch Max about 30 minutes later.
The Wag app includes the ability to follow the walk in real time on a map. My walker even sent short videos of the walk and marked wherever Max relieved himself — a superfluous but strangely satisfying feature. After the trip was completed, I received a report card summarizing the length of the walk and Max’s behavior. I paid $30 for the 30-minute walk, including a $5 tip that I added through the app.
DogVacay is an app that lets you board your dog at a person’s home rather than a traditional boarding service. Hosts name their price and you can search for them based on their location and dates of availability. It took one try to find a host who could board Max for a day, and the overall experience was smooth. After booking and paying $60 for the boarding, I dropped off Max for his slumber party.
While testing Wag and DogVacay, I found the pet GPS tracker Whistle to be a useful tool for making sure dog walkers and sitters were actually doing their jobs. (Call me detail-oriented.)
The $80 GPS tracker fits snugly around a pet’s collar and communicates with a smartphone app that displays the pet’s location on a map. The gadget also logs the amount of time a pet is physically active, similar to a Fitbit. Using Whistle, I was delighted to see that my DogVacay hosts spent over two hours playing with Max in Buena Vista Park.
Subpar Pet Tech
Pet owners can immediately cross these items off the list: pet cams, automatic food dispensers and the app Rover.
The webcam I tested, Petcube, includes a Wi-Fi connection and a built-in laser pointer. When you view the live video feed of your pet through the app, just tap wherever you want the laser to land. Presumably your pet will chase the laser, so when you are procrastinating at work, you can remotely play with your furry companion.
That’s the theory, at least. Max and Cuddy are apparently daytime narcoleptics who couldn’t care less about a laser. And in the end, paying for the $200 Petcube will probably make you regret that you didn’t buy a superior all-around webcam, like the $200 NestCam, which can be used as a full-time home security camera and a part-time pet camera.
A Petcube spokeswoman said the product was a high-quality camera and its laser pointer was a central feature that people use to play with their pets.
I also used a generic automatic pet food dispenser for about a year with Cuddy. Not only did the product’s motor eventually die, but the bowl was also often full of food because my cat refused to eat her kibble unless I fed her myself. Even cats are social creatures, and they grow attached to the hand that feeds them.
Finally, Rover is similar to the dog-walker-summoning app Wag — except rough to use. Rather than automatically matching you with a walker, Rover makes you browse through a directory of walkers, ask them whether they are available on a certain date and wait for a response. The experience is reminiscent of booking a first appointment with a primary care physician.
Not only was Rover time-consuming and tedious, but the app also lacked the ability to watch a walk in real time on a map. It also did not include the ability to add a tip through the app, and my walker had trouble ringing my buzzer because the app did not have an area in my profile to include instructions for entering my building.
This week, Rover announced it would acquire DogVacay, combining the services and resources of the two apps. Let’s hope that the merger results in a better overall product.
Above all, I would recommend dog owners consider installing the Wag app. It is handy to have whether you need to hire walkers often or just occasionally.
When boarding your dog, you might debate whether to use DogVacay or a reputable professional boarding service. But DogVacay gives you a clearer sense of where your dog sleeps, and a person’s living room is probably a less stressful environment than a pet kennel.
The Whistle location tracker is situationally useful. The $80 tracker is expensive to use, as it requires paying a subscription fee of $7 a month. But for those who are paranoid about hiring walkers or boarding animals, Whistle will provide some confidence that your pet is where it is supposed to be — and if your furry friend broke free and got lost, you couldtrack it.
As for me, I typically have enough time to care for my pets, and when I am too busy or traveling, I turn to friends for help. But in the event they are unavailable, I like having these pieces of pet tech in my back pocket.