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CONSUMER WATCH

Keeping close tabs on Fido's wanderings

Two devices use GPS technology to make it hard for dogs to get lost.

May 18, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

How do you know when a dog is a geek?

When he's wearing the latest in doggy hi-tech bling, a GPS locater.

The satellite-linked devices, which have found their way to cars, big rigs, boats and even bicycles, are now available for the canine set.

Two companies are making collar-attached models that send a warning if a dog leaves its designated area. The gizmos then gives the animal's location, allowing you to find it without driving endlessly around the neighborhood, shouting its name.

In theory, it's a cool idea. In practice, neither of the devices -- Pocketfinder or Zoombak -- is quite ready for puppy prime time. And both are rather expensive because of monthly fees.

But as anyone who has lost a dog can tell you, it's an intriguing use of digital tech.

Here's a look at the two products, based on real-life dog tests.

Pocketfinder

Location Based Technologies is taking pre-orders for its product, which is in the final stages of development. Executives at the Anaheim company say they're confident they'll be able to start shipping it this summer.

But here's hoping that they'll take their time and wait until all of the bugs in the product are ironed out and that it's made easier to use. Based on the prototype that was tested, Pocketfinder is potentially an exceptionally cool gadget for dogs with wanderlust.

It works this way:

The owner activates the device, which is attached to the pet's collar, via Pocketfinder's website. This allows it to be digitally located, a trick it accomplishes not only through the global positioning system but also with use of the cellphone network.

The next step is setting a geographical boundary -- the area you want your unaccompanied dog to stay within. That could be a backyard or a field.

This was where the product really shines. To set the boundary, you use clearly marked aerial photo maps from Microsoft's excellent Virtual Earth platform.

For example, I was able to pinpoint my backyard, which is not at all spacious. Then I designated the yard as a "safety zone."

As long as the device was active, I got a cellphone text message and e-mail whenever my dog Earl left the yard.

However, this brought up a problem. I didn't get the message until Earl was out of the yard (safely on a leash and up the street for this test) for about four or five minutes. That amount of time can be crucial if you live near busy streets.

When you get the warning that your dog is outside the safety zone, you can locate him on the site map. But in the test, the map could be refreshed only once every five minutes. That can make for a nerve-racking delay.

(Ideally, when looking for the dog, one person would be stationed at the computer to direct the search. Or if you have a cellphone that clearly shows the website map, you can do it all yourself.)

By the time the product is released, users will be able to shorten the refresh time to about a minute, Pocketfinder said.

That's lots better, although it will drain the device's rechargeable batteries faster.

A more minor and easily fixable problem was that the instructions for using the website tools were a bit confusing. They took some getting used to.

The prototype device was bulky, but that will be fixed, Pocketfinder said. The device, when released, will be a thin disk approximately 2 inches in diameter.

The price will be about $130 for the device, plus $15 a month for the service.

Zoombak

This system, from Zoombak in New York, works in a similar fashion.

But it has one distinct advantage -- when trying to find a dog, the device can be refreshed manually to give a location that's only a few seconds old.

Here's how it worked in testing. I was out with Earl, who was wearing the Zoombak device on his collar, while a friend searched for us from the company site. All my friend had to do was hit the "Locate" button on the site and within a few seconds he'd get a map showing where we were.

But Zoombak has disadvantages, starting with the device itself. It was about the size of a hotel soap bar, but a good deal thicker.

That made it bulky for everyday use on a dog. At a local dog park, the case holding the Zoombak got dirty in just one trip as Earl played with his buddies. And even the Zoombak manual admits that some dogs will scratch at it, trying to get it off.

The locater maps were primitive in comparison with Pocketfinder's. There were no aerial pictures, and some major streets were not named. When I asked my friend monitoring the site where I was at one point during the testing, all he could say was, "a big beige line."

Perhaps it was just a one-time screw-up, but Zoombak was not entirely reliable. On its first day of use, it didn't give out a warning when Earl left one of the safety zones. It did work on the second day.

Zoombak is more expensive. The price listed on the site is $200, plus a $15 monthly service fee.

When I was testing it at a local dog park, one woman spotted it on my dog's collar and asked, "Is that a little cellphone?"

Maybe that's next.

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david.colker@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Doggy detectors

Two new gadgets promise to keep track of wandering pets.

Pocketfinder

Does what: Uses GPS and cell network to locate dog

Price: About $130, plus a $15 monthly service fee

Made by: Location Based Technologies, Anaheim

Pro: Safety zones can be precisely set using online maps

Con: Locate function can't refresh on command

Zoombak

Does what: Uses GPS to locate wandering dog

Price: $200, plus a $15 monthly service fee

Made by: Zoombak, New York

Pro: Locate function can refresh on command

Cons: Maps are less useful; unit is more expensive

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