Future Tense

Is the World’s First Dog Emotion Tracker Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

What’s really behind those soulful eyes?

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Wearables record our steps, track our sleep, measure our skin temperature, and monitor our calorie consumption, all in the hopes of helping us be our best selves. Now they promise to quantify something far more fickle: emotions. In the era of quantified self, one company has taken a bold step—with the first wearable that purports to measure emotions in your dog.

DogStar Life’s TailTalk works on the premise that your dog’s tail is the canine equivalent of a human smile. Each twinge, twitch, and flick represents a glimpse into his internal state—if only we humans could detect it. Enter TailTalk, a smartband that fits snugly around your dog’s tail to measure these acrobatics and analyze them using a proprietary algorithm. For about $120 ($99 if you buy it on Indiegogo), “DogStar Life’s tracker reveals the subtle cues in every tail wag, giving you a direct window into the emotional life of your pet,” says Yannis Tsampalis, CEO and co-founder of DogStar Life.

And boy, are there a lot of pet owners who believe in the idea: An Indiegogo for the product raised more than $40,000 in crowd-funding after one week. Helpfully, the page also includes answers to questions like “Won’t this get poop on it?” (It “does run that risk”) and “Will Tail Talk work on cats or humans?” (“Unfortunately not.”)

It’s easy to see the appeal of such a device. After all, people love their dogs. And people love measuring things. With TailTalk, you purportedly can measure your dog’s every emotional peak and valley from the convenience of your smartphone, where an app relays to you key data points such as your pup’s events schedule, his emotional diary, or his BFFs. (It begins to sound like that episode of Portlandia in which crunchy yuppies want to know everything about the heirloom hazelnut-fed chicken they are about to enjoy, from his name to how many friends he had.)

But how much do we really know about dog emotions? To say a tail is like a smile and thus a gateway into your dog’s emotional life makes for a catchy analogy. And peer-reviewed research has backed the idea that tail-wagging can serve as a key behavioral indicator to other dogs. But a dog’s tail is but one part of his complex expression of emotion, says Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition expert and the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. To understand the full picture, Horowitz says, we have to look at his entire body language—and even then, it’s tricky.

“Dogs give lots of behavioral clues to their emotions,” Horowitz told me. “But we make more assumptions than we really have evidence for the clear emotion indicated by a dog’s posture. Look at a dog ‘doing nothing.’ Can you read if the dog is bored, sleepy, or day-dreaming? Happily waiting for you or quietly suffering? It’s not obvious. While we want to believe that dogs experience emotions in the precise way that we do, it is most likely not the case. Not that dogs don’t have emotions—they certainly do—but we have to imagine what an emotional experience is if not overlaid with language.”

As Horowitz points out, dogs and humans have co-evolved for hundreds of years. In that time, we’ve bred those who are easiest to anthropomorphize—ones who look like they understand us and feel the things that we do. But how can we know for sure? One of the tail-wagging study’s conclusions, for instance, was that dogs mean different things when they wag left compared to wagging right. “It’s true that dogs wagged more to their right side when they saw owners, and wagged more to their left at the sight of an unknown dog,” Horowitz says. “But does that mean that wagging more to their right means ‘happiness’ and wagging more to their left means ‘anxiety’? Not quite. If the wag is forceful enough—loose and broad—I’d say that both are indications of excitement, either tinged with delight (owner) or with apprehension (unknown dog).” She adds: “There are so many other kinds of tail wags than the happy one.”

“Few pet owners know if their dog is truly happy … Now data will let them know for sure,” writes Business Wire about TailTalk. It would be nice to think that we can know definitively how our partner feels about us. But the reality is, we can’t always. Because there is no “proprietary algorithm” that can assess emotions; our relationships are just too complex. Sometimes you have to wonder, to be uncomfortable, to sit in the not-knowing. Does your dog really love you, or is he just putting on the charm that gets him his next bowl of kibble? Some questions can’t be quantified. Not everything is data.