Lost Pet Tech: Comparing Cat and Dog Tracking Collars
Few worse feelings exist than that hollow jolt of fear when you realize your dog is nowhere to be found. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about 15 percent of pet owners lost a dog or cat in the past five years. Of the 93 percent of lost dogs that were found, only 6 percent were found at shelters. About 15 percent were found because of identification tags or microchips, and 49 percent were found by searching the neighborhood.
New technologies are helping more owners with that search by leading them directly to their lost pet. Locator collars used to be expensive and were used only by hunters, but now a variety of locator collars are aimed at pet owners. They can be divided into radio and GPS types, each with their own advantages.
The Different Types of Technology
Radio collars are considered the "older" technology, but they've been improved. No longer do they all have antennas on the dog's collar (although many long-range ones designed for hunting dogs still do), but you still must be within a certain range to detect your dog. As long as you're within range (which could mean driving around until you get a signal), it takes only about a second to transmit your dog's location. Radio might not find your pet indoors, unless it's penetrating radio frequencies, which is used by one collar we looked into.
GPS collars have a larger range. Newer GPS collars employ A-GPS (the A is for "assisted," but you'll also see it called "advanced"). A-GPS improves the time it takes to actually locate your dog after turning on the unit. Plain GPS relies on satellite signals only, which typically takes about 30 seconds, but can take up to 12 minutes in areas in which open sky transmission is limited. A-GPS also relies on network resources. It takes as little as a second in good conditions and two or three minutes in bad conditions — a big difference when you're tracking your lost dog.
A-GPS also allows pets to be found indoors. If your pet is indoors without a clear view of the sky, the transmitter is unlikely to get a regular GPS signal, so if your pet's in somebody's house, plain GPS won't help you find it. A-GPS probably will, although it's generally restricted to areas where your cell phone gets reception.
WAAS-GPS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System GPS. It has better accuracy than standard GPS. While GPS will pinpoint your dog within a 30-foot range, WAAS will do so within a 10-foot range. WAAS-GPS is not as fast as A-GPS in fixating position.
How Tracking Tech Works
Some collars combine GPS with radio signals, sending the information via radio signal to a dedicated receiver. Most combine GPS with communication networks, sending the information to your computer or mobile device. Those relying on GPS require that the dog be in an area of reception for their dedicated provider network. Make sure to check your network coverage!
Unlike radio collars, most of the GPS collars do not operate outside the United States. All require subscription fees. And of course, if the company goes out of business, the collar is rendered useless. This happened with The Global Pet Finder.
Battery life is an important issue. If your dog is lost, the collar won't transmit once the battery is dead, which can happen quickly in some units. Battery life depends on how often you have the unit set to check in. The more it checks in, the shorter the battery life. In our list below, you'll see the battery life range given by the manufacturer, which depends on whether the unit is in resting or transmitting mode. Radio collars generally have better battery life than GPS collars.
How will you find your way to your pet? Most radio collars lead you there by signal strength. Most GPS collars lead you there by a map. Some GPS collars just show where the dog is on the map, which is not much help if you don't know how to get there. Others give you directions.
Several collars include the ability to set up boundaries (like imaginary fences), and if your pet goes beyond them, you're sent an alert. This is a useful feature for a dog that escapes from the yard — or breaks into the flower garden! But this can be irritating when you take your dog for a walk or drive, unless you can turn it off easily.
Collar weight and limitations vary. The transmitters can be too heavy for cats and for dogs under 10 pounds, and most are not designed to be submerged in water. If your dog is swimming, you need to take special precautions to shield any USB ports or electrical components.
Following are descriptions of the major locator collars on the market. Be sure to check the product's website before making a final decision since prices and features change frequently.
These collars rely solely on radio frequency technology (active RFID), and are a good choice for finding pets that are fairly close by.
The Marco Polo uses a penetrating radio frequency band that passes through walls and barriers. One boundary zone can be set up to sound an alarm if the pet leaves. It will also trigger an optional auto dialer to dial one or more phone numbers and deliver a prerecorded voice message. It has audible signals so you can drive and follow its directions. One receiver (larger than a cell phone but still pocket-sized) can track three dogs at once. It is possible to add additional dogs with special software, but without the ability to track all of them simultaneously.
Cost: $219.95 (additional tags are $92.95).
Subscription fee: $0
Range: Two miles in ideal circumstances.
Transmitter: 1.75 ounces. Water resistant; can be submerged in 6 inches of water for up to 10 minutes at a time.
Battery life: One week to three months.
Pluses: Radar can penetrate into (and through) buildings and underground. Long battery life. Good water resistance. Not dependent on cell phone network or reception. Automatic direction finding. Up to three dogs can be monitored at a time.
Minuses: Can be expensive for multiple dogs.
The Loc8tor has the smallest transmitter tag (almost the size of a credit card), but also the smallest range (100 up to 400 feet in open direct line of sight) of all the pet trackers we researched, so it's mostly useful for locating your pet around the house and yard (especially a pet that likes to hide) or by driving around in your car. Its drawback is that it doesn't provide any map — just directional lights that tell you if you're getting hotter or colder. When you press the locator button, the transmitter beeps; this can also be used as a signal for the pet to come if he's been taught that the beep means a treat.
Subscription fee: $0
Range: 400 feet
Transmitter: 0.175 ounces. Two included; unit can support more. Not water resistant. Splash-proof case available.
Subscription fee: $0
Battery life: Two to five months.
Pluses: Very small transmitter. Does not depend on cell phone coverage. Covers up to four dogs. Visually impaired people can use it with audio cues.
Minuses: Very limited range. No boundary alerts. No map.
The Loc8tor Plus has the features of the Loc8tor, but with a range up to 600 feet. It also has one boundary alert and a larger (cell phone–sized) receiver with better directional guidance to your pet.
Subscription fee: $0
Range: 600 feet
Transmitter: 0.175 ounces. Not water-resistant. Splash-proof case available.
Battery life: Two to five months.
Pluses: Small transmitter. No monthly fees. Does not depend on cell phone coverage. Covers up to 24 dogs. Boundary alert.
Minuses: Very limited range. No map.
GPS With Radio Communication
These collars use GPS to locate the dog combined with radio transmission to send the signal to your receiver.
The RoamEO uses WAAS-GPS combined with radio transmission to track one or two dogs wearing transmitter collars. When powered on, the pet collar sends its GPS coordinates directly to the handheld receiver by way of a radio transmitter. This means it will send a signal to your transmitter even in areas in which there is no cell phone coverage (the GPS locator function still operates without cell phone coverage).
Cost: $154 for the complete set for one dog. $129 for additional collars.
Subscription fee: $0
Range: 500-acre diameter (1/2 mile radius); possibly less in hilly areas.
Transmitter size and weight: Transmitter comes as part of collar, which adjusts from 12 to 24 inches. Total weight is 6.5 ounces.
Battery life: 24 hours of continuous use.
Pluses: No monthly fees. Does not depend on cell phone coverage. Covers two dogs.
Minuses: Limited range. No boundary alerts. Heavy and not as aesthetically pleasing as others. Collar transmitter must be powered on to transmit. Battery must be switched out every day.
Garmin offers a variety of GPS collars intended for hunting dogs that combine GPS with portable invisible boundaries, training features, and capability for tracking up to 10 dogs.
Like the RomEO, they don't depend on cell phone providers and subscriptions, but send a signal directly to a hand-held unit.
Some have a range as far as nine miles. But they are pricey, ranging from $499.99 to $799.99 for one dog.
GPS With Network Communication
These collars use GPS to locate the dog and send the signal to your receiver. They are best for large areas, but require monthly fees, and their signal may be restricted by the network provider.
Loc8tor GPS Tracker
The Loc8Tor GPS Tracker is Loc8tor's entry into the GPS/network communication market. It's an all-purpose A-GPS locator that can also be attached to your pet's collar. Unlike most other GPS collars, it's not tied to one network provider but instead roams. For this reason it may be the locator of choice for frequent travelers, especially to other countries (although the manufacturer specifies a couple of countries where it doesn't yet work).
Subscription fee: $199 per year.
Transmitter: 2.1 ounces. Water resistant (can "withstand the occasional splash").
Battery life: 3 to 14 days (9 months in battery save mode).
Pluses: Boundary alert. Panic button. Motion sensor alert. No service contract. Roaming SIM means it's not dependent on one network. Works in most countries.
Minuses: Subscription fee is on the higher end. Transmitter may not be as water resistant as some others. No multi-pet discounts.
Garmin GTU 10
The Garmin GTU 10 is actually a multipurpose locator designed for pets, people and possessions. It allows you to view a history of your pet's locations (so you can see if the dog walker really walked him). For an additional fee, it can even alert you if he exceeds a certain speed (like someone speeding off with him in their car).
Cost: $199.99 (includes one year of standard GPS tracking).
Subscription fee: $49.99 per year (additional $4.99 for Deluxe plan).
Range: AT&T coverage area (Rogers in Canada).
Transmitter: Transmitter hangs in pouch from collar by means of a clip. Transmitter weight is 1.7 ounces.
Battery life: 1 day to 1 month (depending on operation mode chosen).
Pluses: Wide range. Virtual boundaries.
Minuses: Dog must be in an AT&T basic coverage area. No multi-pet discounts. Does not fit snug to collar.
Tagg Pet Tracker
The Tagg Pet Tracker also works using A-GPS and cell phone provider coverage, and has one virtual boundary. It includes an Activity Tracker, which provides graphs of your dog's activity levels throughout the day. The Tagg has a docking station that automatically saves on battery life when the dog is near it — no need to transmit your dog's location when he's sitting beside you! Of the collars that work through GPS and service plans, Tagg is the most economical choice for multi-pet households
Cost: $99.95 (includes three months of service); additional tags are $89.95 (also with three months of service).
Subscription fee: $95.40 per year; additional pets are $11.40 per year each.
Range: Verizon coverage area.
Transmitter: Transmitter weight is 1.1 ounces. It is water resistant. (The dog can take it for a "light swim.")
Battery life: 3.5 to 30 days, depending on pet's location.
Pluses: Wide range. One virtual boundary. Activity monitor. Multi-pet discount. The docking station will serve up to 10 pets.
Minuses: Dog must be in a Verizon basic coverage area. Virtual boundary is three acres — larger than some people's yards.
The SpotLite2.0 also works using A-GPS combined with cell phone provider coverage, and has virtual boundaries (Safe Spots), location history, and excessive speed alerts. In addition, it comes with enrollment in the AKC Reunite service, which provides phone support when your dog is missing. A special "Rescue" button on the transmitter allows any person who finds your dog to press it, and your dog's location will be immediately sent to you.
Subscription fee: $179.88 per year, plus $15 activation fee.
Range: T-Mobile coverage area.
Transmitter: Under 3 ounces. Waterproof.
Battery life: One to four days.
Pluses: Wide range. Virtual boundaries. Rescue button. Enrollment in AKC Reunite.
Minuses: Dog must be in a T-Mobile basic coverage area. No multi-pet discounts.
The Gibi isn't on the market yet, but it's vying for a place on Wal-Mart shelves. The prototype is stylish and its functions include virtual boundaries, history and real-time tracking. No information is available on the transmitter specifications, price or provider network.
Which of the above best suits your needs?