Monday, July 25, 2016

Phil and the FitBark

An athletic dog wearing the (waterproof) FitBark. Phil doesn't quite look like this when he is active.

How active is your dog when you’re not around? Is he or she restless at night? How do medical conditions impact activity?

I’ve been experimenting with a device called the FitBark, an accelerometer designed specifically for dogs that I purchased at a recent veterinary conference. Accelerometers have been increasingly used in animal welfare studies to look at the impact of disease and pain on animal behaviour. The FitBark is marketed for ordinary users, primarily for motivating them to get their dog fit. It is designed to fit on a collar, and weighs 8grams. That doesn’t sound like much but Phil had to get used to it.

This is more our style.
The FitBark syncs data with your smartphone or tablet about how often, when and to what degree your dog is active. So you charge the device, download the app, complete the details (how old is your dog? What breed? Does he or she have any medical conditions, if so, what?), fit it to your dog’s collar and it starts collecting data.

And it’s fascinating. Turns out Phil gets more exercise when he accompanies me to work than when I take him on a big walk. And he’s a pretty good sleeper despite his odd nocturnal wandering (most days he scores above 85 in the sleep department – I feel like that should earn him an honorary degree).

Phil's activity for last week, showing dramatic peaks and a big midweek trough. You can see he likes a nice sleep in in the mornings! Apparently he's more active than most Maltese terriers, although being half the size I wonder if he's doing twice the work.

We’ve only been using it a few weeks but the battery seems to last around two weeks which is impressive.

The other thing I like about the FitBark is that the company is mining the data to further understand companion canine activity. For example, so far it has shown that – around the world – dogs are more active on weekends. Saturday is the most active day of the weekend, with Sunday a close second and Friday the third most active day. Which shows there’s scope for more dog walking earlier in the week.

They’ve also found that puppies are most active between 3 and 6 months of age – the most joyous but simultaneously the most stressful phase of living with a puppy. Some breeds sleep better than others, senior dogs have similar activity levels regardless of whether they’re small or large breed and some breeds really freak out when it comes to fireworks. Dogs diagnosed with osteoarthritis have activity levels reduced by around 30 per cent. You can check out more of the findings on their website under data.

There are a couple of quirks. Like accelerometers for humans, the FitBark does record some non-active moment – like when Phil wants to be carried around the block (though he gets a higher score when he’s the one pounding the pavement). And daily I am told that Phil blows his breed-related goal out of the water, but being one half the size of an ordinary Maltese I am not sure how accurate that is.

The company has an ideal aim of your veterinarian syncing their tablet with your dog’s FitBark and being able to comment on activity levels. I’m not sure it’s widely used enough for that yet and as a vet I’m yet to be presented with an owner who wants me to sync with a FitBark, though it’s a neat concept.

This is a pic from the FitBark website...apparently consultations of the future might look a bit like this. Though I have to say I've not shown Phil his own scores as I don't think he'd know what he's looking at.
Overall this is an interesting device. I’ve learned that Phil is much less active when I’m away, so I need to take him on extra walks before and after. And I’m happy to contribute to citizen science.