AI Has Gone to the Dogs – Really!

By Judy Bellack, Industry Principal, The Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative

We’ve all been hearing so much about artificial intelligence in recent months.  ChatGPT can scour the internet and answer our questions in seconds, compose poems, write emails and essays, and have a natural language conversation with us. We’re seeing AI’s application in smart-home tech, predictive technology, chatbots and analytics, medical diagnosis tools and so very much more. In fact, it would be difficult to think of an industry or discipline that is not presently utilizing AI to some degree. According to Forbes, the global AI market was $40 billion in 2019, and is estimated to hit $733 billion by 2027 – a growth rate of 42%. Wow.

Enter Companion, the first AI-powered, always-available playmate for your dog. Think of a slightly-bigger-than-a-bread-box unit that can see your pup, and even speak to it in your voice. And while the overarching mission is to engage and delight your beloved pet, Companion also provides a huge assist with ongoing training and identification of visual cues your pet uses to communicate. Fascinating, right?

It may be natural to react with a little skepticism at first . . . a machine interacting with dogs? How can that work? And isn’t that a bit of a cop-out for pet parents? Well, no. We can’t be with our dogs 100% of the time, nor can we catalog and analyze their activity and movements the way a computer can. We utilize smart tech in every part of our lives – from our personal phones and watches to our household Alexa, from analyzing our golf swings to monitoring our health. Why wouldn’t we want to employ this technology with something as important as the health and well-being of our pets?

But how do we get dogs to interact with a device? According to Companion founder and CEO John Honchariw, “The answer to that is to have a ton of fun. The entire tech is based on the premise that we can get a dog excited enough to run across the house when the device turns on. The way we do this initially is with the tried-and-true technique of keeping the dog engaged with lights, sounds, and treats to play games. The scientific term would be to desensitize or acclimate the dog to the device. But simply, it really is all about having fun. Once the dog is acclimated, we move on to more basic skills, then move on to more advanced skills.”

How Companion works is simple: using cameras, Companion picks up on the messages your dog is already sending through their movement and posture; it provides hours of scheduled and on-demand engagement day-in and day-out; and curriculum constantly adapts and adds new behavior, training, and health modules over the air as your dog learns. You can see your dog’s activity – and your dog – on the Companion app. 

What was the brainchild for Companion? “I’ve always had a huge soft spot for animals,” says Honchariw. “My wife describes me as an animal whisperer. In our early vacations together, my wife would want to go to the local restaurants and churches and historical sites, and I’d want to go hang out with the donkeys or the monkeys or other animals. I’ve always felt like I can pick up on what animals are trying to communicate with their movement – like are they comfortable or uncomfortable — and I’ve always felt great affection and empathy for them. It’s a combination of both enjoying the company of animals and having a sense of how they’re feeling, as well as a love of using technology to help automate or make parts of life easier or more interesting.”

Honchariw describes the mission of Companion as an opportunity to use technology to drive empathy. “It’s about understanding all these animals we care about on a much deeper level. That’s where the passion is coming from because understanding drives empathy. The choice of product came from the realization that we have all this tech around our houses already, and we could use this tech to pick up on these little cues animals are constantly sending our way. We often miss these cues or don’t have a perfect memory or we’re not quite sure what they mean; but they’re there. Dogs are speaking to us in their own language. The fact that our existing tech can help us pick up on these communications we miss, that was very exciting to me.”

Speaking of understanding our dogs on a deeper level, Companion can detect and track subtle changes in a dog’s health that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, skeletal analysis could reveal potential pain or the onset of osteoarthritis. The ability to share these changes with a vet could help diagnose conditions earlier by observing the pet’s most natural movement in their home environment.

According to Honchariw, “Vets appreciate that Companion is an additional tool – candid footage can capture slow-moving changes in patterns. We are one of the few pet tech companies in the space that has made it a point to go to the major veterinary conferences.  We were so excited that the ASPCA invited us in to place our headquarters on their grounds; it signifies a trust in our practices and our character, and how we are going to interact with dogs. We’ve always tried not only to defer to the right philosophies in the pet space, but also to bring trusted animal welfare individuals onboard the bus. So, whether it’s Ken Ramirez of Karen Prior Clicker Training, or Dr. Marty Becker of Fear Free, we don’t just pay lip service to these philosophies. We bring those philosophies inside the company where it permeates everything we do.”

Honchariw adds that animal welfare leaders like Mike McFarland, DVM and chief medical officer at Zoetis, as well as co-founder and board of trustees chair of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, is a big fan. “He would tell you that seeing an animal in-home where it acts most naturally is very exciting for veterinary care,” says Honchariw, “not to mention the positive impact on the human-animal bond; and he’s anxious to see similar tech applied to cats because they hide their pain so well.”

As for Honchariw’s long-term vision for Companion? He sees vast possibilities to advance well-being as product adoption grows and creates access to more data as the technology gains access to millions of patterns over time. “Once we’re able to widen that aperture,” says Honchariw, “I can’t wait to see what subtle things we might discover. But at the end of the day, what I’d most like to convey to animal lovers is that this is a device whose purpose is to delight your dog. It’s more than a babysitter or trainer, it’s about pure delight every day, and helping you be a an even better parent to your dog.”