LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Houdini the dog lived up to his name.
The lab-shepherd mix, known as a crafty escape artist, was placed in a foster home by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Despite his new owner's best efforts to keep him close, the dog pushed an air conditioner out of a window and made his getaway.
Fortunately the staff at Best Friends anticipated Houdini's wandering ways and had outfitted his collar with a GPS tracking device. The device worked as promised, and Best Friends adoption manager Kristi Littrell found the errant dog in an overgrown lot in Kanab.
About half of the pets that enter animal shelters each year are strays or lost animals, but the growing use of GPS technology may offer owners a new option for trying to track down roaming cats, missing dogs and other runaway pets.
Several GPS devices are now being marketed that attach to collars and can be monitored by handsets, cellphones or computers with relative ease. Kristi Littrell, adoption manager at Best Friends, said Houdini was "the same colour as the weeds" in the lot where she found him.
"I would never have found him without the GPS device on his collar," she added. Best Friends is still hoping to find a home for Houdini, and plans to give the GPS device to the new owners to help make sure that if he ever does get out again, he'll be easily tracked down.
"It's great these devices are available to us now," Littrell said. "They will undoubtedly help in a lot of cases where pets would otherwise not be found and returned home."
Best Friends uses a device called Loc8tor to keep track of Houdini. A handset picks up a signal from a tag attached to the pet's collar and indicates which way to go to locate the tag. It's designed to work within a range of 122 metres, though obstacles like walls and floors can reduce the range.
Another GPS tracking device designed for pets is Tagg The Pet Tracker. Its fans include Jessica Vogelsang, a San Diego veterinarian who received a free Tagg for review on her blog, Dr. V at Pawcurious.com.
"I've tried out a few GPS trackers, but the Tagg is the only one I liked enough to recommend," she said. "I've been testing it for about a month now and I've been getting accurate locations with it consistently. What I find really innovative about it, however, is how well they've integrated mobile technology so you can track your pet in real time not only on the site but with your phone, using the app or even text messaging."
To use Tagg, you need a home computer and a cellphone. You program your pet's safety zone — it can be as small as your house or as big as your neighbourhood. If he leaves that space, you will get an email or text (your choice) telling you he's gone and where he is. If he's on the move, you can track his movements until you find him and take him home.
"I never would have dreamed in my lifetime that there would come a day when I would get a text message for help from my pet," said Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., who uses Tagg with his puppy Anchovy.
GPS devices could theoretically help people locate missing pets in all kinds of situations where animals are vulnerable to getting lost, such as when pets are shipped by plane or after natural disasters, assuming that owners have access to the electronics they need to track signals and that the devices remain charged.
There are several GPS tracking devices on the market, and while many consumers rave about the technology, complaints tend to fall into several categories. Some say batteries in the devices do not always hold a charge for as long as promised; that digital maps associated with the devices are not always easy to read or use; and that the devices do not always cover the range of distance that pet owners expected.
The Tagg Master Kit costs $100 and comes with a battery charger and a month of wireless service; service is $8 a month after that. A basic Loc8tor Pet kit costs $100.