Whistle has made a Fitbit for dogs and doesn't care if you think that's silly

By James Robinson , written on April 16, 2014

From The News Desk

Viewed through one lens, the intersection of pets and the Internet of Things is the ultimate gimmick, the overlapping of our indulgences for technology and our fetish for treating animals like members of the family. But as trifling as technology to put an activity tracker on a dog collar might seem, there’s an impeccable business sense to it. Americans spent $55 billion on their pets in 2013. Spending on pets has grown unabated for 20 years.

And as Steven Eidelman, the co-founder and head of product at Whistle attests, it is a market sector begging for a little modernization. “You go into the pet store and it looks like the 1980s still,” he says.

Whistle -- which sells a small connected metal device that hooks onto a dog’s collar -- was founded in San Francisco in 2012 by Eidelman, CEO Ben Jacobs and Head of Technology Kevin Lloyd. It took in $6 million in Series A funding last June and launched a product at the end of 2013.

Both Eidelman and Jacobs were doting pet owners who had spent time at Bain Consulting working with the pet industry. An original motivator for starting Whistle was when Jacobs lost his dog Bear to an otherwise preventable stomach problem. Dogs hide their pain well and owners spend a lot of time away from their animals.

“We wanted to capture information that has never been available. We toyed with ideas of the quantified other, capturing information about a living being you care about deeply,” Eidelman says.

There’s an undeniable element of the Whistle product that helps dog owners keep tabs on pets they're too busy to spend time with. Eidelman says that a lot of the emotional benefit of Whistle is helping humans feel more connected to their dog. He thinks the psychology of it is similar to a baby monitor.

“Ultimately, Whistle is a place where your dog is living and breathing wherever you are,” Eidelman says.

Whistle has deliberately shunned building a dashboard stuffed with metrics. The founders have worked on providing simple pieces of information with obvious benefits for both dog and human. Using the Whistle app, owners can set activity goals for the day, driving them to spend more time playing or exercising with their dog. The owner can also see where there dog is, how active they’ve been in their absence, and if they’re around another Whistle user.

But there’s more under the hood here than it would appear. Whistle has kept its purview relatively simple, but it does more than offer a guilt assuaging way for owners to peek in on their dog from afar. Whistle can give you a baseline of what typical behavior is for your breed of dog. Eidelman says that the Whistle’s accelerometer catches both activity and rest and the device uses machine learning to distinguish between things like walking and running. Through doing this it is able to pick up on deviations from a dog’s baseline habits and pick up on serious health issues proactively.

“In our first month an owner in Boston saw that their Labrador’s activity and rest levels had dropped. They were more active and restless, simultaneously. It turned out it had a very serious kidney notification. We sent them a push notification and they were able to diagnose that far in advance. It could have been fatal,” Eidelman says.

A considerable amount of research was needed to underpin these insights. Eidelman says that Whistle’s first move was to partner with veterinary schools at the University of Pennsylvania and UC Davis. It is in the process now of looking at how data from Whistle can help owners monitor their dogs post-surgery and on how best to use the accelerometer to detect seizures in dogs, which usually happen at night time while an owner is sleeping.

Last month, Whistle signed a deal with PetSmart to be sold in their 1,100 stores. It has only been on sale a few months, but the early reviews are good. Whistle worked with the designers of the Fitbit to make sure it was stylish and easy to use. Most of its competitors offer GPS-tracking services only. Whistle is a new offering in part of the market where people are more than willing to spend a lot of money. Americans spend a lot of money on their pets, but that’s split between food, medicine, vet care, grooming and kennels. But to really cash in, there’s a lot Whistle has to do right first: marketing itself well, establishing a consistent retail presence, educate its consumers.

Eidelman knows though that some people will always marginalize his company, seeing it as a tech product for dogs and a pampered luxury.

“Going into the pet space, you need to expect that,” he says. Providing a tool that is more than a gimmick for dog owners is most definitely the goal, he adds.

If Whistle can do that and cash in on a ripe market that hasn’t found a way to stop growing for 20 years, there’s no amount of snickering that will take away from that.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]