Should This Thing Be Smart? Dog Collar Edition.

A GPS-enabled dog collar, to be exact.

A Link AKC Smart Collar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Link AKC.

Welcome to Should This Thing Be Smart? Each month, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, and the $99 toothbrush.

Product: Link AKC Smart Collar

Price: $99 on linkakc.com.

Function: The Link AKC Smart Collar is a Bluetooth-enabled dog collar that uses GPS technology to track your pet’s whereabouts and help you find it when it goes astray. More than just a homing beacon, though, the collar pairs with a mobile app that lets you monitor your dog’s well-being, set its fitness goals, and record the “adventures” you have together. The collar is “like your dog’s first smartphone,” the product website says, and if you’ve always yearned to give your dog a mobile device it can wear around its neck, then the Link AKC Smart Collar might be the collar for you.

The case for the smart dog collar: The Link AKC Smart Collar is a very interesting collar. It is basically a LoJack for your dog, and if you don’t see the utility in such a thing, then clearly you have never had a dog go missing. Dogs, being dogs, get lost all the time. They usually turn up, but the interim period can be very stressful and send all sorts of crazy thoughts running through your mind. Did the dog get hurt? Or stolen? Did it run away to join some sort of canine circus? Standard dog collars do nothing at all to help answer these and other circus-related questions.

By incorporating GPS technology into an accessory that most every dog wears anyway, the Link helps you monitor your pooch’s location in an intuitive and unobtrusive manner. It uses Bluetooth to set up “safe zones”—like your front yard, for instance—in which your dog does not need to be tracked by GPS. Once your dog strays from those zones, you get a notification and the GPS swings into action. From there you can use the paired app to pinpoint your dog’s location and bring it home safe and sound. This is a much more efficient dog-finding process than Xeroxing dozens of “Lost Dog” signs and spending countless fretful hours taping them to local poles. The Link AKC Smart Collar will free you from the need to ever again touch a pole.

The smart dog collar is an inclusive collar. It recognizes that dogs have been largely excluded from the app revolution (with some exceptions). In this data-driven era, we humans are able to quantify and analyze most everything we do, from the steps we take to the food we eat to the music we stream. But the most common canine “device”—the collar—is basically a wearable clothes hanger, and it’s been this way for centuries. Can your standard dog collar monitor your dog’s location or the outside temperature? Of course it can’t. It’s a strip of fabric. The Link AKC Smart Dog Collar is a laudable first step toward onboarding all dogs to Web 3.0.

The Link is an ideal accessory for an era in which many people clearly cannot bear to have their dogs out of their sight for even a minute, judging by the number of dogs I see in shops, restaurants, subway cars, airplanes, and other once-forbidden locales. This data-driven dog collar is the perfect accessory for the dog whose owner could reasonably be described as a “helicopter pet parent.” It will feed your obsession with your dog by collecting and presenting data that you can use to further obsess over your dog. You will soon think and speak of nothing else, even more than usual.

The Link AKC Smart Collar might help your dog lose weight. It is basically like a Fitbit for your dog, insofar as it allows you to monitor its activity levels and set fitness goals so that you can be sure your dog is getting the appropriate amount of exercise. “More than half of the dogs in the United States are overweight,” the Link website announces, and while the claim is unattributed, it certainly has the ring of truth. There’s this one dog on my block that looks like an overstuffed duffel bag, and I fear for its health every time I see it lumbering down the sidewalk. If any dog has ever needed a Fitbit for dogs, it is this obese dog.

The collar lights up in the dark, which is a very useful feature, given that most dogs are not naturally luminescent. I am not a dog owner, but I can only imagine that nighttime walks in minimally lit areas are perilous, and that you spend the entire time worrying that either you or your dog will fall in a hole. The Link AKC Smart Collar will help you avoid holes.

The collar comes in two different models for two different canine lifestyles. There’s your standard leather collar, for the elegant dog about town. Then there’s the sporty nylon model, which is probably best if your dog is more of an extreme sports dog, like Poochie, the rockin’ dog.

The collar is endorsed by Kate Upton, as well as Kate Upton’s dog. It is also affiliated with the American Kennel Club, which explains the “AKC” in the product’s name. I do not know if either Kate Upton or Kate Upton’s dog have been endorsed by the American Kennel Club, but I intend to find out. Stay tuned, fans!

The case against the smart dog collar: The Link AKC Smart Collar is certainly not the only dog tracking device on the market, and, at least according to the Wirecutter, it is certainly not the best dog tracking device on the market. The product review site deemed the Link expensive and unreliable, with poor battery life, and concluded that “the issues we noted are too problematic for us to recommend this tracker,” even if significant improvements were made. Given that the collar’s tracking capacity is its primary feature, this nonendorsement seems like a relatively strong case against this particular smart dog collar.

Unlike a standard dog collar, your financial commitment to the Link AKC Smart Collar does not end when you buy it. The collar’s GPS tracking service—its key feature, as noted above—requires a monthly service plan, which runs on the AT&T network and will cost you between $6.95 and $9.95 per month. Much like your unemployable adult children, the collar will keep sucking your money until one of the two of you drops dead.

The collar’s GPS does not always work. According to the website, the tracking unit requires a clear line of sight to the GPS satellite overhead, which means that connectivity will be impeded when your dog is “indoors, under a bridge, in a heavily wooded area, etc.” Granted, the need for line-of-sight connectivity is true of GPS in general, but it might feel especially frustrating when you are trying to find a lost dog. I feel like missing dogs are generally likely to be in the woods, or indoors, or some other place where they cannot be seen by the naked eye. Under a bridge, not so much, unless your dog is the sort that likes to pal around with trolls and hobos. If your dog is that sort of dog, then, brother, you’ve got bigger problems to worry about.

The quantified life is a miserable life. We all know this, even though we might not be willing to readily admit it. Endless connectivity and the omnipresence of attention-sapping devices has robbed us all of certain simple, serendipitous pleasures, like going for a long walk with your dog without feeling obliged to track your dog’s steps or document your mutual adventures via your dog’s collar’s dedicated app. The Link AKC Smart Collar is just another distraction that takes you out of the present and tethers you and all those around you to the cloud.

Does your dog really need a mobile device? I would argue that it does not. The sidewalks of America’s cities are already thoroughly clogged with slow-walking humans Instagramming or texting instead of proceeding to their destinations in a quick and orderly manner. This situation is bad enough. No one wants to be further impeded by a German shepherd taking a selfie or whatever.

Though the smart collar is endorsed by Kate Upton, as far as I know it has not been endorsed by Justin Verlander. Trouble in paradise?????

Security risk factor: How nervous should you be about the smart collar? The answer depends in part on your level of comfort with direct marketing. The Link AKC’s privacy policy stipulates that the company reserves the right to share the personal information it collects with “third parties for direct marketing purposes,” among other entities. I, for one, would find it very annoying to be bombarded with ads and offers for canine SlimFast because the Link informed the manufacturer that my dog is fat.

James Loving, a security researcher affiliated with MIT, spotlighted other security concerns. “My main worry is the location reporting; the temperature and activity monitors don’t appear to present a significant risk, and because the device appears to only connect with the paired smartphone with Bluetooth or through a cloud server, I’m not very worried about the collar being used as an access vector to other devices,” he said in an email. “Specifically, pet location worries me because it can establish a pattern of life for the owner. Most pet owners likely walk their pets before/after work (or at least let them outside during those periods). Additionally, if the pet is located away from home, the owner is likely also away—perfect time to rob a home.” If I were a burglar, I would definitely choose to rob a house at a time when I knew the dog was out and about. Most burglars don’t like to be bitten.

Is the smart collar more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? The specter of Link-enabled home invasion notwithstanding, I feel like the smart collar’s tracking capacity makes it more likely to be used to solve a crime, and perhaps even finally bring the dreaded Cruella de Vil to justice.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should be smart. People like to pamper their pets because they love their pets, and if you love your pet, you will be heartbroken if it goes missing. The Link AKC Smart Collar does not appear to be the best tracker on the market, but, regardless of how the product was executed, the concept behind it is solid.