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RFID & GPS for Dogs

We all love our pets and when something comes out that could save their life or return them home should they get lost - we listen.  There are new technologies that many pet owners might like to take advantage of if they knew more about them.  Each has it's limitations and advantages.

RFID Identification

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification....it's a passive system that can connect you with your pet for identification purposes.  A radio wave generator chip is injected into a dog’s body (by an experienced vet). The chip is about the size of a grain of rice and is harmless and painless and typically placed between the shoulderblades. Once implanted, whenever lost or there is a dispute over the ownership of the the dog, a sensor picks up a unique numberand is then matched with owner on file and that is how a pet is identified.  This grain of rice is dormant and does not send any info out unless activated by a transponder.  A vets office or shelter will likely have one of these transponder readers (they are fairly expensive) and when they wave it over your pet, a number appears on the transponder.  This number corresponds to a record kept elsewhere that has the owner's name, address, phone and other contact info.  One of the disadvantages is that not all scanners can scan all chips.  Some will just tell you what kind of chip it is and you'll still have to seek out the right kin dof scanner to get the actual ID number.  Newer RFID chips can actually bring up and store more information than just a number, but currently, in dogs the most common chips in the US are AVID and Home Again and both require a call to a database to get the information.  This product is excellent if you wish to prove a dog is yours, or if your dog gets lost and is scanned, it will tell the scanning party who the dog should be returned to.  The fact is while this is miles ahead of a tag on a collar, it essentially does the same thing...except that it can't fall off or get lost like a collar or tag can.  We did try using tattoos for a bit until we had a litter that just wouldn't tattoo!  Apparently some skin types cannot take the ink for some reason, so we have gone entirely to RFID chips.  The advantage is that it's not something that is immediately visual like a tattoo which can be covered by hair and unreadable until shaved.  An RFID chip can be read right through hair.

I once worked at a company that created RFID technology (they made those key cards used to get in buildings & parking decks among other RFID products) and asked why couldn't a RFID chip be used to TRACK a dog?  The answer is because it's passive and has no power of it's own. It has a limited range of just a few meters in even the largest tags (such as a card used for getting into the parking garage). The scanner is what provides the power to obtain the information from the chip.  To use as a tracking device, it would require a power source. And currently there is no power source small enough to fit in a grain of rice...though they are working on it (one study suggests getting power from the natural electricity in the body...but this is some time away from development). Even if they could work out the power problems for something so tiny, it likely still wouldn't have enough power to be able to transmit to a satellite miles away. 

GPS Tracker

GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) is the next generation technology on the other hand.  It requires a special collar that transmits a signal to a satellite or cell towers which then relay that information back to your computer or cell phone.  The down side is it's not the size of a  grain of rice.  It's bulky, has to have a battery pack and antenna.  The battery has limited range and run-time. Every generation is getting smaller, but it's still pretty cumbersome for your dog's everyday wear.  Plus, to be effective it needs to be recharged at least every couple of days which means your escape artist is going without his collar (or at least a tracking collar). Currently it's mainly hunters and hunting dogs that use this technology because it's useful for short distances of a mile or two and the dog is at high risk of getting lost when running offlead because it's still fairly expensive - though the cost is coming down.  The transponder uses either cell phone towers or satellite to triangulate where the dog is at any given moment and the hunter can find the dog using this GPS system. One of the disadvantages of the system is that there is a lag time between when the signal is sent and decoded, then returned to the home unit.  The signal lag has some bearing on the price of the unit...the pricier ones tend to have less lag.  It can be affected by natural geology like lakes, mountains and other things that can block or corrupt the signal making it somewhat inaccurate as well...but if you are chasing your dog through miles of wilderness, it's probably your best option.

Another type of GPS unit can allow you to set a perimeter and it will notify you when the dog breaches the predetermined perimeter.  These are less expensive, but also less accurate as they are merely telling you the dog has left the property with a text message.  They mainly rely on boundary-training or a fence to keep the dog on the property.  After you receive the alert that the dog has left the perimeter, you must log in to a web site to actually track the dog and the lag time can be quite significant.  Once it leaves the outer boundary, there is a point that the dog may no longer be tracked and the unit becomes almost useless (some units can still send signals to a base unit for awhile, but once they leave the outer lying areas or the battery runs low, they no longer send a signal.)

Lastly, there is the Invisible Fence technology.  A wire is laid out on the perimeter of the property and the dog wears a collar that provides a warning sound, then shock if it attempts to breach the perimeter.  This requires some training to teach the dog where the boundaries are by either walking the perimeter with the dog or putting up temporary flags.  Generally though, with a Malamute, it doesn't work causing the dog several episodes of getting shocked before it learns the perimeter.  This is not GPS nor RFID, but merely a shock collar triggered by a perimeter wire.  These typically do NOT work well with a Malamute because they have a very high pain threshold and strong prey drive.  If something is interesting to the Malamute beyond the "fence" he will usually figure out that if he runs through it fast, it's just a small shock and he's able to get to what his heart desires.  An added negative is that there is little incentive to come 'home' once out because it will mean another painful shock.  I've only heard of it working well on puppies, old dysplastic or blind or in some other way compromised malamutes.  Most healthy younger dogs would need their neck shaved (for good contact) and the collar turned up full blast - which in my opinion is verging on cruel and can cause aggression in some dogs (because they don't know why they are being shocked).  Some dogs manage to figure out it doesn't work when the power is out or turned off as well!  It's the breed and that's just the way they are.  A physical fence is necessary.  Invisible fences also do not keep other dogs OUT of the yard as a physical fence would....giving your Mal the opportunity to finish off that annoying Shih Tzu next door if he comes in the yard.

Technology is great under many circumstances but it's no substitute for teaching your Malamute to come reliably and walk nicely on leash.  In my opinion, a Malamute should NEVER be off-lead except under certain circumstances - an Obedience or Agility trial (usually within a fenced fairgrounds), a fenced yard or other secure area.  It's just not being a responsible pet owner.