Can tech help make dogs smarter?

That’s the question behind PupPod, a Seattle-based startup which just debuted its latest app-based interactive toy for dogs.

I’ve spent the past few weeks testing out PupPod with my 9-month-old labrador Ichi. It’s been a fun new activity for both of us, especially during rainy Seattle evenings and an ongoing pandemic. I came away impressed with the slick app and the innovative games. Ichi also approved, especially when the device gave him treats!

Ichi waits for a treat during a game with PupPod’s toy and feeder. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The PupPod experience, which retails at $199, includes a bobbing toy, a feeder, and the mobile app. The basic premise is that the dog touches the toy, and treats come out of the feeder. The app has five levels that make it harder for the dog to win a treat — ignoring certain sounds, touching the toy immediately after a sound, etc.

On Level 1, the dog has to simply touch the bobbing toy and a treat dispenses. On Level 2, rewards are earned when the toy is touched immediately after a sound plays. Level 3 introduces a new sound that does not dispense a treat — the dog must learn to ignore it until hearing the treat sound.

The experience requires some level of involvement by an owner to help teach the dog how to interact with the toy and feeder. Eventually, the game can be a reliable way to keep the dog occupied while you work or cook dinner. It also tires the pup out, both from walking and the mental stimulation. As they say, a tired dog is a good dog.

The feeder and toy can be controlled remotely outside of the house. The app has a live streaming video feature, using a camera on the feeder.

(PupPod Photo)

PupPod says its game requires dogs to use their prefrontal cortex, which can increase attention spans and reduce senility in older dogs. It can also create positive associations with certain sounds, such as doorbells or fireworks.

The dog tech hasn’t changed my life, nor Ichi’s. But it’s a welcome addition to our game routine, which still includes old-school puzzles, and low-tech feeder toys that we use during meal time.

This is the second product from PupPod, founded in 2014 by former Microsoft employees Erick Eidus and Kandarp Jani. The idea for the company originated at a Startup Weekend event. Its first product retailed at $499.

The new version is launching amid a pandemic that has spurred increased pet ownership within a pet care industry that was already “booming” pre-pandemic. Other digital pet companies are seeing growth this year. Online retailer Chewy, for example, is adding customers at record pace, and its stock price has doubled since March. Pet care startup Rover, also based in Seattle, has rebounded after cutting staff earlier this year.

Eidus said dog owners need a way to keep dogs busy while working from home, and not using daycares or walkers as frequently. He said $199 is a “no-brainer” for pet parents who were previously spending $300-to-$600 a month on daycare while they went to work.

PupPod co-founders Erick Eidus (left) and Kandarp Jani. (PupPod Photo)

There are other high-tech interactive feeder toys, including a dog camera built by fellow Seattle startup Furbo. Other competitors include Petcube, Petchatz, and Clever Pet.

But the built-in games give PupPod an edge. Eidus said there is huge potential for PupPod to help democratize animal learning.

“Dogs have the ability to detect the presence of COVID, cancer, low blood sugar in diabetics, pre-seizures in epileptics, explosives for military dogs, drugs, and fruit, but only a fraction of dogs who are showered with money and human labor get to learn these skills,” he said. “In the longer term, we’ll bring this type of learning to market with software-driven games.”

PupPod last year raised a $772,000 seed investment round led by Dr. Roger Mugford, a veteran animal psychologist and founder of The Company of Animals.

The global pet care market is expected to grow from $225 billion in 2019 to $358 billion in 2027, according to Fior Markets.

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