When I first heard about dog activity trackers, I was skeptical. To say the least.
But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Who doesn't want to get into the mind of their dog, and figure out what makes him or her tick? I certainly do. And what better way to get a sense of who your dog is—especially compared to other dogs his or her age, size, or breed—than to track their every movement? For example, is my French bulldog particularly lazy, or is that just a Frenchie trait? Does my Pomeranian ever stop moving, or am I just imagining her hyperness?
Dog activity trackers aren't as crazy as they sound. We took a look at two of the most popular doggie trackers on the market—the FitBark Activity Monitor and the Whistle GPS Pet Tracker—to see how they measure up against each other. I put one on Dolce, my Pomeranian, and one on Remy, my French bulldog, and then I let them live their lives for a couple of weeks. Here are the results.
Design is important—even when the design is literally for the dogs. The FitBark is cute: It's a small, plastic bone-shaped collar device that comes in five colors ("free spirit" green, "life of the party" blue, "passionate lover" red, "rockstar" gray, and "romantic snuggler" pink) and attaches securely to your pup's collar with a black rubber band (the package includes three rubber bands). Embedded in the front of the device are FitBark's logo and charging LEDs, and on the back is a micro-USB port (covered with a waterproof port protector) that you can access without taking the device off of the collar.
The Whistle GPS is less kitschy, but I can't say I'm a huge fan of the design. It has a brushed aluminum faceplate engraved with the Whistle logo, but the sleek, modern look of that part of the product is somewhat undermined by two gray silicone "wings"' that stick out from two sides of the device. These wings may make the device a little more streamlined (it juts out from the collar pretty far, so perhaps this is Whistle's way of smoothing that out), but they're not very attractive. The Whistle GPS comes with its own charging dock, as well as a collar attachment plate that attaches to your dog's collar with a special rubber back. The device slides and snaps into place on the collar attachment plate and you can remove it for charging.
The FitBark is a little gimmicky with its bone shape, but the Whistle GPS’s design is just kind of weird. I'd take a little plastic bone on my dog's collar any day.
To work with active pups, these trackers need to be sturdy enough to withstand water, dirt, and rough-and-tumble puppy play. Both the FitBark and the Whistle GPS are waterproof (the FitBark is rated IPX7, while the Whistle GPS is rated IP67) and durable. But after my dogs had worn them for a couple of weeks nonstop, I could see that one of these trackers was a little tougher than the other.
The FitBark is made of hard, molded plastic with a slightly textured finish. As a result, it's very scratch-resistant, even when matched against another dog's teeth—my dogs like to nip at each other's necks. The Whistle GPS, by comparison, is composed of multiple parts, including an aluminum faceplate that, while attractive, is not scratch-resistant. I saw scratches on the Whistle GPS' faceplate after just a couple of hours of wear by my dog (and all he'd been doing was lying around on the floor).
Another drawback: The Whistle GPS’s two silicone wings tended to get caught on things (such as branches) as the dog went exploring.
Both trackers are durable—but after two weeks of testing, the FitBark still looked like new, while the Whistle GPS did not.
Both the FitBark and the Whistle GPS are one-size-fits-most products. This is a consideration only if your dog falls outside the most-dogs size range. Mine are an 8-pound Pomeranian with a tiny, 8-inch neck, and a 37-pound French Bulldog with a larger-than-average 17.5-inch neck.
The FitBark measures 1.1 inches wide by 1.6 inches long, is 0.4 inch thick, and weighs just 8 grams. According to the company, it's designed for all dogs and can fit collars that are up to 1.18 inches thick. My Pom has such a tiny neck that we use a cat collar for her, and the FitBark, which attaches to the collar securely with a rubber loop, fits perfectly well on her collar. At 8 grams, it weighs less than her tags and doesn't seem to affect her comfort level at all.
The Whistle GPS, on the other hand, is relatively enormous. It measures 1.5 inches wide by 4.2 inches long (including those silicone wings), is 0.8 inch thick, and weighs 36.8 grams—more than four times as much as the FitBark. Needless to say, the Whistle GPS is not recommended for dogs under 10 pounds, and there was no way this would fit on my Pom's collar. It did fit comfortably on my Frenchie's collar, but he has a large neck for a small dog—most dogs his size will have smaller necks. The Whistle GPS also juts out rather far from the collar, enough so that it occasionally got caught on things (such as my husband's leg) as my Frenchie walked past them.
Although the Whistle GPS doesn't seem to be uncomfortably heavy for larger dogs, the FitBark is smaller, lighter, and less likely to catch on things.
There's a big difference in functionality between these two devices. The FitBark is an activity tracker: It tracks your dog's activity, and gives you an idea of how much exercise your dog gets compared to other dogs of similar size, age, and breed. But the Whistle GPS is both an activity tracker and a GPS tracker. So while the FitBark can tell you what percentile of activity level your Pomeranian is in (compared to other Pomeranians), the Whistle GPS can provide similar data—and tell you exactly where your dog is at any given time.
The winner here is no-contest, especially if you have a dog that likes to escape from your yard. While the FitBark provides some neat features for data geeks who want to make sure that their dog is in decent shape, the Whistle GPS can alert you when your dog goes for an unplanned solo walk and pinpoint your pup's exact location.
Winner: Whistle GPS
Both devices work with companion apps: The FitBark works with the FitBark app (free; Android, iOS), and the Whistle GPS works with the Whistle app (free; Android, iOS). The apps are sort of like human activity tracking apps—they take your dog's breed, age, size/weight, and general activity level into account, they allow you to set activity goals for your dog, and they have a social component (you can befriend other dogs, compete on leaderboards, and post updates to your feed). The FitBark app also lets you sync your pet's tracker with your Fitbit for the "ultimate bonding experience."
Unlike human activity tracking apps, these apps do not measure activity in steps, stairs climbed, distance covered, or calories burned. Instead, they simply track "activity": The FitBark app tracks rest time, active time, and play time; the Whistle app tracks rest time and active time. Both apps show daily graphs of active time, so you can see what time of day your dog was running around versus sleeping. The FitBark app uses the slightly confusing system of "BarkPoints" for goal-setting. BarkPoints are activity points that your dog earns for all types of activity, including rest. The Whistle app adopts a much less confusing system: You set a goal of X minutes of active time for your dog, and the device tracks your pet’s progress toward it.
Both apps take a little getting used to, but the Whistle's app is definitely more user-friendly. One of my biggest disappointments with the FitBark app—aside from the BarkPoints system, which I never fully understood—was the fact that I couldn't refresh the app to sync with my dog's device. The device is supposed to sync on its own when it's in range, but sometimes this automatic syncing didn't work, and in any case I would have liked a way to prompt a sync. The Whistle app lets you manually sync with your device by pulling down to refresh.
Winner: Whistle GPS
If you're like most people who own dogs and work full-time, you spend a big chunk of time away from your pup during the day. You may even employ a dog-walker to take your furry friend out for a spin at lunch time—and you may want to use a dog activity tracker to make sure that your dog is getting the exercise and stimulation that you're paying for. Both the FitBark and the Whistle GPS can update you on your dog's activity levels throughout the day via Wi-Fi, but with the FitBark you'll have to pay extra and your updates will be more limited.
The Whistle GPS is constantly connected to GPS and will alert you when your dog leaves the home zone (you can set this up so that you'll get an alert as soon as your dog-walker takes your dog out of your house). The FitBark, on the other hand, is designed to update mainly via Bluetooth—and hence, only when your phone is within Bluetooth range of the tracker. You can purchase an optional $80 Wi-Fi Base Station for the FitBark that will sync with the tracker and stream live updates to your phone, but the dog will need to be within range of the Base Station for the sync to happen, so you'll get belated updates about your pup's activity when the dog-walker returns to your home.
Bottom line: If you need to know what your dog is up to while you're away during the day, the Whistle GPS is the tracker for you.
Winner: Whistle GPS
The FitBark has a battery life of 10 to 14 days, depending on how you (and your dog) use it (more activity means a shorter battery life). The Whistle GPS's battery life depends on how often your pup is near the base station: When your dog is near the base station, the device goes into a power-save mode. If your dog is near the base station all the time, the battery can last for up to a month on a charge; if your dog is near the base station most of the time (aside from a short daily walk), the battery will last 14 to 20 days. If your dog is nowhere near the base station, you can expect 3 to 4 days of battery life, which is hopefully enough time for you to find your pup if he gets lost in the wilderness.
In average use, the Whistle GPS' battery lasts longer, thanks to its base-station power-saving mode.
Winner: Whistle GPS
The FitBark retails for $100, but all colors are currently on sale in FitBark's online store for $70. If you'd like to be able to sync with the FitBark over Wi-Fi (instead of just over Bluetooth 4.0), you'll need to purchase a Wi-Fi base station for your home, which costs an extra $80.
The Whistle GPS also retails for $100, but it is currently on sale for $80. To use the device for GPS tracking, however, you will need to purchase a service plan to go with it, and that will set you back at least $7 per month (billed biannually).
The winner here is pretty obvious: The FitBark is cheaper and it's a one-time charge.
It's a tie! Well, sort of. The FitBark and the Whistle GPS are actually two very different products, and the better device for your dog depends on your situation. I live in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, in a high-rise building: There's virtually no chance that my dogs are going to escape from my fifth-floor apartment without my knowing it, nor are my pups ever off-leash; so while a GPS tracker is a neat idea, it's completely unnecessary in my situation. Plus, my dogs are on the smaller side, and they're pretty fashionable (if I do say so myself), so the FitBark just makes sense. But if you're the kind of person who goes on off-leash hikes in the wilderness with your canine companion, the Whistle GPS is probably a smarter investment.
Photo credits: FitBark, Whistle.