Yollo the cat was getting fat.
Dave Evans, Yollo’s human, suspected the sudden weight gain was a sign that his feline companion was cheating on him with other families in the new neighborhood they’d recently moved into. He just needed a way to prove it.
Evans, who was consulting for a leading GPS company at the time, enlisted his friend, Matt Quinn, to help build a tracking device small enough to fit on Yollo’s collar. He downloaded the data when the tabby squeezed his bulk back through the cat door every morning and soon got the proof he sought: Yollo was indeed visiting specific homes every night and, presumably, enjoying dinner at each one.
Yollo’s dalliances gave birth to a new calling for Evans. In 2013, he created G-Paws, a GPS fitness tracker for pets that includes a large social “petwork” so owners can note which parks their dog’s buddies frequent and engage in friendly contests to see which canine is the fastest and which cat the most curious. About 20,000 pets have logged more than a million miles of adventures since then, and G-Paws has expanded globally beyond its U.K. home, with sales in North America, Europe and Asia, and a recent trial period in Best Buy stores.
Unlike other wearable gadgets for pets, G-Paws is more about having fun than preventing losing a pet, Evans says. Eschewing the real-time focus of mobile services helped him curb both the cost and weight of the device. It sells for about $40 (about 30 pounds), making it accessible to the 75 percent of pet owners who dote on their fur babies but won’t spend more than $50 on a toy, he says.
“The pet space has been obsessed with real-time tracking,” Evans says. “Some customers do want that, but others just want to know where their cat goes at night or how fast their dog runs, and we can provide that to them for a third of the price. We try to keep the hardware simple and keep prices down so that everyone can get involved.”
Pet parents will soon be able to choose a new Bluetooth version to keep constant tabs on their furry friends, within range, or the current cheaper unit with a USB port to connect to a computer or smartphone and download information that can be viewed on a map and shared. The device clips onto pets’ collars, and at just half an ounce (14 grams) and the size of a large toothbrush head, it doesn’t get in their way.
Quinn and his digital agency, Profound, developed the G-Paws website on the Microsoft Azure IoT Suite, which ingests data from the devices, processes it, stows it and then visualizes trends simply and easily for G-Paws users. The IoT Suite’s pre-configured solution scales easily from hundreds of devices to millions, Quinn says, so G-Paws is ready for growth.
The social nature of G-Paws helped Heather Chambers reconnect with her family in the U.K. after she moved to Texas. Chambers has a device for her poodle mix, Dixie, and her sister has one back in England for her chocolate lab, Truffle. The siblings connected on the G-Paws app through Facebook, and they can track the walks they each do with their pups, 4,800 miles (7,700 kilometers) away.
“We can see maps of each other’s routes, how far we went, how fast we were and what the weather was like, which is always interesting, because there’s such a contrast between the weather in Houston and the weather back in the U.K.,” Chambers says. “When we visit each other, we always take each other’s dogs out for walks, and this way we already know all the routes the dogs like to go, because we’ve seen them on the maps.”
As Chambers learned her sister’s patterns, she was even able to start timing Dixie’s walks to coincide with Truffle’s, so they could essentially be walking together despite the six-hour time difference.
Better yet, G-Paws’ maps helped bring Chambers’ mother-in-law out of her shell of grief and loneliness after her husband died last year. Chambers and her husband began sharing Dixie’s routes with her over the phone and email, providing easy conversation starters.
“It was a way to get her engaged again with us and with life,” Chambers says. “I send her a photo of the map and then we talk all about our walk. The national parks in Texas are huge, and you can walk for hours, so she always wants to know how far we went and where we saw the alligators and that kind of thing, because it’s all so different from England.”
Chambers’ mother-in-law doesn’t know it yet, but she and her dog will be getting their own G-Paws unit for Christmas this year, and the daily dog walks truly will become a family affair.
Even though the focus of G-Paws is about having fun and connecting socially, Nicki Kirk credits the device with rescuing her beloved tabby cat last September.
Thomas used to disappear for hours at a time in their neighborhood on the outskirts of London, a busy thoroughfare lined with shops that were backed by garages up and down an alley. Kirk thought it would be fun to find out where Thomas went, so she bought a collar and a G-Paws unit and delighted her partner, Terry Barrett, with maps of the cat’s adventures while Barrett had been away driving long-haul truck routes for the week. Thomas usually only ranged a half-kilometer from the house, Kirk says, but occasionally he ventured out much further, and “sometimes you could see from his speed and activities that he’d gone on a riot hunting.”
One week before Kirk and Barrett were set to move to a house in the countryside, Thomas didn’t come home for lunch. Kirk went around to all the shopkeepers, who loved the cat because he kept the rats away, but no one had seen him. She cried her eyes out for days, she says, with the move looming, until suddenly she remembered the G-Paws maps.
“I got out my tablet and we mapped out where Thomas usually liked to go in the mornings, and Terry went and posted flyers and slipped them under people’s doors along those routes, asking them to keep an eye out and to check their garages and sheds,” Kirk recalls. “And within 20 minutes we heard Thomas crying at the back door to be let in.”
It had been a warm month and people had their windows and doors open, she recalls, so they figure Thomas had been exploring in someone’s garage and accidentally got shut in, until the G-Paws-enabled, targeted campaign helped to free him.
When fitness device companies launched, they quickly realized that if they didn’t make their gadgets fun, they’d lose their customer base within a few months. G-Paws recognized that, too, and focused on the petwork idea, with features such as dynamic leaderboards.
“If I’ve got a Labrador in San Francisco, I can look into all the other Labradors in the area and put my dog on the leaderboard, to get some boasting rights, for gamification,” Evans says.
But some customers use them for working animals, too. When dogs are being used for search and rescue, for example, the devices help keep track of which quadrants have already been explored.
James Potter trains gun dogs, who help hunters find and retrieve game, usually birds. He uses G-Paws devices to find out how much distance his flat-coated retrievers cover during a working day, what speeds they top out at – they regularly get up to 26 miles per hour – and how they work to track the birds. G-Paws even holds up under water, as Potter’s dogs routinely test by swimming across rivers.
“At the end of the day I can compare which dog has been where, and when you overlay their maps, you see how much of the field they’ve covered, and when, and at what speed,” Potter says. “This lets me start working them up before the season to the distances I know they’ll have to work, to make sure they’re fit.”
Back in the city, the device can be used to track a dog-walker’s forays and make sure a pooch is getting enough exercise while its human is at the office.
As the success of this summer’s hit movie “The Secret Life of Pets” shows, animal lovers are curious about the lives their four-legged friends lead when their humans aren’t around. And people are often surprised to discover what their pet’s gotten up to, says Quinn.
Dixie zips out of her Houston yard and disappears any time the gate is opened. So Chambers started charting her course, and now she knows exactly where to search for the runaway poodle.
“There are certain neighbors she likes to bark at, I don’t know why, and she makes a beeline for their house,” Chambers says. “All these things you find out about your dog when you get this device.”
As for Yollo, Evans was able to approach each neighbor the cat had conned – the G-Paws device is accurate within five meters – and “in a very friendly manner” convince them to stop feeding the chubby kitty. He’s now back down to his svelte self – no squeezing required to get through the pet door after his nighttime escapades.