Technology Goes to the Dogs

Bless the Beasts — And Wire Them?

Tech writers are inundated with gadgets: games, scanners, and the occasional vibrating tongue. But nothing recently has been quite as haunting as the LitterMaid, the automated, self-cleaning kitty litter box that's advertised in countless airplane shopping magazines. Practical, ridiculous, yet somehow sublime, it seems teleported from a Jetsons utopia where bots mix our martinis, shiatsu our necks, and, yes, tend to the poop.

Like all great promises, even the LitterMaid had to be put to the test. Two experts, a pair of cats named Elroy and Vincent, were recruited for duty. But no sooner had I booted up the LitterMaid Web site than I stumbled on an underworld of high-tech pet products: anti-bark collars, ultrasonic critter repellents, even a tracking microchip that's injected under an animal's skin. The future is now, Elroy; better hide under the couch.

"Making bad dogs good and good dogs better," is the slogan of Innotek, an Indiana-based manufacturer of electronic training products for pets. For the past decade, Innotek has been perfecting a legion of gizmos that would make Pavlov himself kneel down and slobber. "Traditionally, people call them 'shock collars,' " says Jim Schlender, Innotek's marketing director. "But that gives a connotation that we don't want to be associated with."

The key ingredient in these Innotek products is the zap: a small burst of voltage that, Schlender says, feels like putting your finger in a light socket. The No-Bark Collar is a battery- operated collar that zaps when it picks up vibrations from a dog's ruff. The Free Spirit Model FS-400A is a remote-controlled collar; simply press a range of four intensity buttons on the remote to dole out a corrective zap next time, say, Rover tries to eat the bonsai plant.

Innotek promotes its products as veterinarian approved. The devices, however, are usually tried on the company employee's pets, not on people. ("It's not like we're running around here and shocking each other," Schlender explains). Still, I felt obliged. After strapping on the No-Bark Collar for a test drive, let's just say I won't be hitting the high notes of an REO Speedwagon ballad.

On more innocent pastures, cows across the country are leading the way for microchip identification technology— a system that's being used to trace livestock and pets back to their rightful owners. Since the mad cow scare in England, there's been a push in the cattle industry to ensure more secure methods of tracing cattle, just in case someone buys a hunk of bad beef. The answer? Duh: inject a microchip.

A California company called American Veterinary Identification Devices (AVID) is one of the largest manufacturers of injectable microchip IDs. With a hypodermic needle, the chips— which contain unique numeric codes— are placed just under the animal's skin. A thin layer of protein encasing the chip anchors it to the surrounding tissue. Using a special radio signal device, a vet scans Elsie's body to pick up the cow's specific code. The code is then punched into a database of all the registered livestock and, voilà: name that meat!

The product is the invention of Dr. Hannis L. Stoddard III, a veterinary surgeon who, back in 1985, developed a way to electronically tag his collection of exotic birds. Today, the microchips are used by farmers and humane societies worldwide. The Queen of England's cocker spaniels have been microchipped, as has Keiko— the wet and cuddly star of Free Willy.

According to AVID, over 75,000 pets have been recovered using the system. Powder, a lost cat from Battle Creek, Michigan, wandered 65 miles to Holland, where it was found, scanned, and returned. The owner renamed the pet James Bond Powder after learning that the cat's ID number ended in 007.

It's heartwarming. It's high tech. It's really, really weird. But it's no less strange, alas, than what some New Yorkers have decided to do with their LitterMaids. According to company spokesperson Dr. John Prang, intrepid dog owners have been experimenting with ways to let their pooches explore their feline sides. Who says only cats can enjoy the wonders of a self-cleaning sandbox?

"For female dogs who squat, it works fantastically," effuses Dr. Prang. "But part of the training is to get a male dog to squat instead of lift its leg. If you have a big German Shepherd who lifts his leg, he's not going to hit a 15-inch box of litter."

As for Elroy and Vincent, they had no problem marking their mechanized spot. Their owner Harry reports that the cats have taken well to their millennial crap shack. In fact, they're somewhat in awe. Harry woke in the middle of the night to find the boys sitting in the blue moonlight as the LitterMaid sifted for clumps. "I caught them both staring at it," Harry says, "just, like, amazed."

 
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