Will 2017 be the year that you and your dog get fit?
As we move into the New Year, many people are making resolutions to improve their lives. One of the most common promises is to pay more attention to personal fitness, by starting a new exercise regime. And "Fitbit" type wrist-devices that monitor the amount of activity carried out have become increasingly popular. These make it easy to set goals for yourself, and they even pat you on the back (or to be more accurate, they buzz you on the wrist) for reaching your daily target.
In the animal world, activity monitors are also the latest trend. The same type of technology has been transposed from the wrist to the neck, and it's now possible to buy collars for dogs and cats that track various aspects of their daily habits. The devices are water resistant, they have long lasting, rechargeable batteries, and they sync automatically with your smartphone using wifi or Bluetooth technology.
Just like the human versions of these products, these devices are used for more than just the obvious record-keeping of distance covered. There are six main aspects to their use.
First, and most obviously, they monitor physical activity, providing data which allows you to know precisely how much exercise is being carried out. The activity can be broken down into separate types, such as walking, running, playing and sleeping.
Second, some of the devices measure a range of physiological parameters, including heart rate and body temperature. These can be useful for monitoring specific issues in pets, including epilepsy, pregnancy (predicting the timing of whelping), pain control after operations or in pets with arthritis, skin disease (measuring how often a pet itches themselves) and others.
Third, you can set activity goals, modifying your daily routine so that you reach your goals. When used in this way, the devices can actually change your behaviour (and your pet's), improving your daily routines, fitness and health.
Fourth, the devices have added extras that tie in with smart phones, such as automatic notifications which can provide you with reminders for aspects of life such as medication, fluid intake, meal times and more.
Fifth, some of the devices use GPS enabled location tracking, making it easier to measure distances, but also providing a constant record of the precise location of a pet. In a world where people worry about losing pets (or having them stolen), this can be very useful.
Finally, if you know other people with similar devices for their pets, you can compete with one another to see who's best at sticking to activity goals. This competitive aspect can work well to motivate people to change their daily habits.
There has been a rapid proliferation of these types of products: five years ago there were none, and there are now over half a dozen available. It can be difficult to choose which is best for your pet: it depends on your precise needs. If you're considering getting one, it's worth taking time to read online reviews of the various features of each product.
Fitbark, Pitpat, Petpace, and KippyVita are some of the current brands, and there isn't yet a clear market leader: each has strengths and weaknesses. There's also a location tracker for cats, called Pawtrack, which allows you to see the precise location of your pet at any time of day. As technology advances, these products are getting smaller and more efficient: perhaps one day they'll be reduced to the size of an implantable microchip. The various versions are available at different prices, from €50 to over €100, with extra monthly costs for subscriptions or SIM cards, depending on the product.
I've found it interesting to hear people's opinions of pet activity monitors: it seems to me that if you are a gadget kind of person, you'll love them. If, on the other hand, you are an animal lover without a penchant for computers, phones or the like, then there may be simpler ways of improving the activity levels of yourself and your pet. I have two simple suggestions.
First, take up Canicross. This sport involves running with your dog along forest trails and through fields. You need to buy a special harness for your dog, as well as a long bungee-type leash that attaches to your waist (visit www.tails-and-trails.org to buy these online). Once you have done some simple training with your dog, the two of you can run together, just about anywhere you want. You don't need to compete, but once you get good at running together, the competitions add interest to your new hobby. Canicross doesn't suit every dog and owner, but if you want to find a way to get the two of you fit together, it's hard to beat.
My second suggestion is to buy a good "chucker and ball": this allows you to easily throw a ball repeatedly for your pet, allowing them to get at least double the exercise compared to the usual leisurely walk beside you. My favourite brand is called "Chuckit", with brightly coloured balls (making them hard to lose in undergrowth) that make a quiet whistling sound as they are thrown (making them easier for dogs to chase).
The New Year is a great time to start new habits: perhaps 2017 will be the year that you - and your dog - finally reach optimal fitness together.