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Even pets are learning online over lockdown

Just as humans have found solace in video calls during the pandemic, pet services, too, have gone online. Can they work?

By Serena Tarling

As lockdowns were imposed across the world, humans found solace in the digital lifelines of conferencing or chat apps Zoom, Skype and Houseparty to stay connected with each other, be it for corporate meetings or socialising in zoom quizzes and online drinks. It has proven to be a boon for the video conferencing app Zoom which saw its profit double in the second quarter and revenues skyrocket 355%. But what about pets? Could there be the same opportunities for online interaction for dog-owners or even for dogs themselves?

Pet camera companies, such as Petcube, originally founded in Ukraine in 2012, have already given pet owners tools to stay in video contact with their pets during the day. Petcube even makes remote-controlled treat dispensers that allow pet parents to give out rewards from afar.

But what about more serious training?

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Training for dogs

Danish company Go Dogo believes it is possible to do some of this digitally. They have developed a computerised, non-touch dog training system which they believe can help stimulate dogs they are on their own at home. Founder and CEO, Dr Hanne Jarmer began experimenting with the idea in 2015 when she was a department head at the Technical University of Denmark.

With two whippets and a family of four kids, she found she was struggling to keep her dogs stimulated during the day.

Jarmer began by filming a few videos of herself giving verbal commands. She then set up a treat dispenser in her living room and played the video cues on the TV to her dogs. When the dogs performed the instruction, they were rewarded with a “good boy” video snippet and a treat from the treat dispenser.

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With the help of two computer scientists from the University and an expert in mechatronics, she developed an automated dog-training prototype, using machine learning and game logic. The game now consists of two physical units that connect to your TV via an HDMI cable — including the automatic treat dispenser. An app enables the owner to set a training schedule and monitor the dog’s progress remotely.

At this stage, the product is not for sale as it is still in its trial phase with volunteers, but Hanne envisions that the software will cost around $10 per month. Go Dogo is hoping to start selling the software in Denmark in the spring of 2021 and then extend to Germany and the UK later that month.

“Go Dogo is not instead of training – it’s simply an advanced brain game,” Dr Jarmer is keen to emphasise.

Dog behavioural expert, Nick Jones of AlphaDogBehaviour says it is important to remember that nothing can replace human interaction and the importance of socialising with other dogs. “Some dogs would respond to that sort of device quite well – and others wouldn’t engage at all,” says Mr Jones. “It’s down to breed and personality,” he adds.

Training for owners

Finnish startup OneMind Dogs has taken its extensive training programme online, but in this case, the training is focused on dog owners who are unable to take their dogs to physical training schools, either because of time commitments involved or due to Covid-restrictions. The OneMind approach is based on non-verbal communication and “seeing things more from a dog’s point of view”. OneMind Dogs launched officially online in 2013 and quickly took off in the North American market.

“After travelling the world training people in our OneMind Dog training method, we already had a strong database of dog owners and training schools,” says Noora Keskievari, cofounder and CEO. “ At that point, there weren’t many subscription services for dog training so it was quite pioneering.”

There were two main funding rounds, the first one was led by Finnish company, Lifeline Ventures and last year they did a crowdfunding round — all amounting to a total of £1m.

Demand grew exponentially earlier this year. “During Covid there was a huge opportunity for greater impact with changing trends in consumer behaviour and dog ownership,” says Ms Keskievari. “People saw online opportunities differently — they were depressed, their dogs were untrained – so [having the online training] was life-changing for them.”

The OneMind Dogs team had to make quick adaptations to cater for a growing subscription base, and cut premium expenses. They also had to move swiftly to research the changing needs in dogs’ families and set up a customer service support team across the world for any hitches in training.

It was a real challenge to scale up dog training but retain the quality,” says Keskievari. Their goal is to reach one million subscribers by 2025. “This year has helped get us a lot closer to that goal,” she adds.

Vets online

There is also a growing market for online vet consultations, which at this point has taken off in the UK, with apps like FirstVet, and in the Nordic countries. Dusseldorf-based Dr SAM has seen its membership grow ten-fold in the last year. “We want to build a whole pet ecosystem,” says founder and CEO, Dr Jan Holzapfel, “so it won’t be just an online pet consultation — we want to give them the opportunity to get medicine and insurance as well. We know pet and pet owners so well we can offer them a custom product.”

They have two levels to their membership — a Dr SAM basic for €29.90 and a Dr SAM plus for €34.90, which at this stage offers an emergency medical kit as the extra. With a core team of 20-25 vets based in Dusseldorf, Berlin, Zurich and in Austria, they initially funded the technological infrastructure themselves, and then went onto launch a pre-seed funding round, in which they secured over €1m.

“We are looking for more VC investment — we currently have a US investor on board and some Asian funds.” They are hoping to expand into continental Europe next year and even into the UK market.

Holzapfel says initially, much like human health, people have been skeptical of using online pet consultations, but once they have got over the hurdle, it helps take the worry out of a physical visit to a vet.

“People will be monitoring their pets more closely so they can be treated much more quickly. Otherwise the tendency is to leave a consultation until it’s too late,” he says.

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