It's that time of year again, with the nights drawing in and the daylight hours diminishing by the day, putting the dampeners on our evenings on the river or our ball games in the garden. And so every year at around this time I find myself scouring the internet looking for new ways of entertaining Rumble indoors. Being a particularly brainy Border Collie, this pup needs constant stimulation!
So down the shopping rabbit hole I went, and while there are more dog toys and games than you can shake a Bacon-Flavoured Nylon Chew Stick at, it was the gadgets and hi-tech toys that had me panting like a porky Pug. And so I thought I'd highlight my favorite dog tech based on hours of research, and not just gizmos for winter nights indoors.
iFETCH INTERACTIVE BALL LAUNCHER
Best for lazy dog owners!
This automatic ball launcher fires tennis balls at varying distances (10, 25 and 40 feet) and can be used inside or out; it has a mains plug but also a rechargeable battery for outdoor sessions. Your dog drops the ball into the loading hole at the back and the device fires the ball out the front, while you pour a cold one and spectate from the lounger.
Most customers are happy with the iFetch and it does the job, keeping dogs busy on their own once they've learned to drop the ball in the loader. But it seems longevity is the biggest problem, with many experiencing a drop in performance as the balls become chewed or drenched with slobber. This causes the two rubber gears that grab and launch the ball to wear, reducing their grip and ability to fire the ball the distance. You'd just need to buy more balls and swap them often and don't load it with overly wet ammo.
Other complaints are how the battery loses charge sooner and sooner over time, also reducing its power. For a crowd-funded product by a new family-owned company, we can only expect these flaws to be addressed in later editions by sourcing better parts. But in the main, dog owners seem to love the iFetch and one reviewer's dog used it every day for hours, for over a year and half. The question is whether that's a long enough life for the price of $200 (£160). The smaller, original, version is $120 (£95). I still want one, and there are other options available but they all seem to have similarly mixed reviews and tend to use small balls, which are potential choking hazards. I think you have to accept that these things won't launch balls as far as you could throw one, and they're not going to last for years. If you can throw this kind of money at one, they will get you through the winter at the very least.
WOPET SMART PET CAMERA TREAT DISPENSER
Best for dogs left home alone
There are a number of WiFi cameras on the market for remotely monitoring your pets while away from home. I've had a couple of very inexpensive options and they're great for peace of mind, being able to spy on your dog and even speak to them ("Noooo! Stop chewing the TV remote!").
But now there are a handful of dog camera devices that can also remotely dispense treats to your hound too.
The Furbo Dog Camera holds the top spot in this arena, but I can't see why when comparing it with some cheaper alternatives, so I'm recommending the WOpet Smart Camera as it's over $50 cheaper and does the same job.
The camera live-streams in HD and includes night vision so you check that crashing noise downstairs wasn't an intruder but just your dog knocking the lamp off the side table as he runs in his dreams. It has a two-way mic/speaker so you can talk to your pet, or an intruder. And you can even connect it to Alexa and tell her to fire treats at your dog without getting your phone out.
So it almost matches the Furbo on spec, with the exc - "the ultimate health and location tracker". The Explore is the top of the range and, combined with the phone app, records your dog's activity, lets you set goals, monitors calories burnt and alerts you to any changes in behavior, such as prolonged sleeping or inactivity. Sounds good, but it's the GPS functions that impress me the most.
All in all, the reviews on this seem more positive in terms of set-up and use. You can get better quality WiFi cameras for monitoring your dog remotely, but you're really paying for that treat dispensing function and this offers better value than the Furbo. But if you want Bark alerts and money's no object, the Amazon's Choice Furbo might be for you.
WHISTLE GO EXPLORE
Best for adventurous dogs/escape artists
There are myriad dog health and location trackers on the market, such as the inexpensive Tractive LTE GPS Dog Tracker for under $50 (not including the necessary subscription), but I wanted to find the Ferrari of GPS trackers with more functions that I'd probably ever use.
Enter the all-singing all-dancing Whistle Go Explore - "the ultimate health and location tracker". The Explore is the top of the range and, combined with the phone app, records your dog's activity, lets you set goals, monitor calories burnt and alerts you to any changes in behavior, such as prolonged sleeping or inactivity. Sounds good, but it's the GPS functions that impress me the most.
Its real-time location tracking, using a network provider and Google maps, means you can see where and how far your dog walker takes your dog; or helps you locate an escapee, and even alerts you on your phone if your dog leaves a predetermined area, whether that's your garden perimeter or a campsite, for instance.
This top drawer version boasts a 20 day battery life, features continuous tracking and sends you weekly activity reports. The most basic version has a 7 day battery life and tracks every 60 seconds, with no weekly reports. It's also the only version to have a built in light, which you can switch on from your phone, in case you lose sight of your dog in the dark. Nice.
The biggest problem with this review is that I can't confirm if it works outside of the US, despite being sold internationally. One Australian claims it to not work Down Under, but most reviews are from the US and are peppered with complaints about location service failing. This is likely to have more to do with the coverage in your area from the network provider. Despite being Amazon's number one best-seller, I'm more inclined to recommend the cheaper Tractive Dog Tracker which is less than half the price, offers near-identical functions, and definitely works in the UK on 3G.
CHEERBLE WICKED BALL
Best for puppies (and cats!)
OK, if your dog is a destroyer of balls, skip this review. This intelligent ball is not for chewers!
But the Cheerble Wicked Ball is for dogs to entertain themselves, either while you're out or busy in the house. With a number of modes depending on their activity level, this clever ball plays with your dog on its own thanks to a bunch of motors and electronics inside, sending it scooting all over the place on random routes. The main mechanism is housed inside a separate protective unit and it shuts down if your dog manages to break apart the outer ball case. But it is recommended for cats and dogs who don't chew. I still think my Rumble would love it, but I'd only use when I'm in the same room, watching TV while he plays on his own.
It's also waterproof so can be played with in the pool or river too.
It has mixed reviews and scores 3.2 out of 5 stars, but all the reviews lower than 5 stars are from owners whose dog chewed the thing to death. Most reviews are positive and their dogs loved it.
Quite a lot of money for a ball, but it's an automatic ball that will let me watch TV without interruption for at least ten minutes, so I'm sold.
ARF PETS DOG TREAT DISPENSER
Best for clever boys and girls
Rumble already has this on his Christmas list, and I know he'll figure it out in two minutes, being such a smart ass. The clever Arf Pets Treat Dispenser includes a separate unit with a big button on it for your dog to press and release the goodies. The best part is that you can place the remote button pad up to 160ft away, indoors, or 100ft outdoors, meaning they have to run back and forth to the button and then to the dispenser to get their reward, repeat ad infinitum. It makes exciting noises as it dispenses the treat too, for added reward.
It's a great memory training game, initially, and then once they've got it nailed, a great way of exercising them on their own. I might even be able to watch a whole TV show uninterrupted with this! It has nearly 80% 4 and 5 star reviews, with the only quibbles being its lightweight construction. But for the price, it's undeniably good value.
Don't tell Rumble, but I'm getting him one. Get yours here.
GOPRO FETCH DOG HARNESS
Best for roving reporters
This is simply the ultimate onboard POV camera system for dogs, and it's specifically for the awesome little GoPro action camera, sold separately.
There's not much to say about the GoPro Fetch Dog Harness, as it attaches the camera on your dog's back or on her chest for a lower point of view and stays nice and secure with quality straps and clasps. When Rumble is wearing his, he runs at full speed and swims in the river with it, returning with great footage from his perspective (especially if shot in slo-mo). Here's an example, shot on an old GoPro with no stabilization.
Having gone through the reviews on Amazon, I shall ignore them as they seem to cover all different GoPro products, so the poor ratings aren't reflective of this particular product, although it still garners 4.6 stars out of 5. I speak from experience and have used this in my day job as a videographer (any excuse to get my dog into my commercial work!). There are definitely cheaper alternatives but, from experience, I will only buy official GoPro accessories now as the quality of the copies is dire. You get what you pay for.
However, you're going to need a GoPro if you don't already have one. I'd recommend them to anyone, as they're awesome cameras for video and photos, offer many shooting functions such as time-lapse and photo-burst, and they're super tough and completely waterproof. Very few cameras offer so much in such a tiny pocketable form. There are many versions, from the top-spec GoPro Hero 9, with 5K Ultra High HD, Live Streaming and the amazing built-in Image Stabilization, or the GoPro Hero 7 with 4K HD, Live Streaming and Image Stabilization. There are lower spec, cheaper options but for dog camera work, you'll really be glad you have the ridiculously good Hyper Smooth image stabilization.