GPS Trackers For Dogs – Separating Myth From Reality

August 24, 2019

​Losing your dog is a pet owner's worst nightmare. Not knowing what happened is very disturbing. All kinds of horrible thoughts race through the pet owner's mind. Was he stolen? Was she hit by a car and is slowly dying in a ditch somewhere? Is he wandering around lost, starving to death? Is she just trapped in some way and can't get out? If only I knew where she was, I could go save her!

These concerns have prompted the development of tracking systems for dogs. GPS dog trackers were initially developed for hunting dogs, who are sent out into the wilderness to hunt at a distance from their owner and occasionally just disappeared, either because they got lost, got injured, or got trapped somewhere. Dog tracking systems have become a life-saving way for hunters to retrieve their beloved, valuable dogs.

Pet owners are now jumping on the bandwagon of using GPS technology to keep their dogs safe. If ​your dog is outfitted with a GPS, when he runs out the door after a cat, you can rapidly track him down and get him safely home. However, there are many myths and misconceptions about GPS trackers for dogs.

​How Do GPS Dog Trackers Work?

​Radio Telemetry

​As mentioned ​previously, dog tracking systems were originally invented as a way for hunters to keep track of their dogs while hunting. The first units on the market were rather large and clunky and used radio telemetry rather than GPS. The dog had to wear a collar with a large, heavy box attached to it along with an antenna that stuck up. The collar sent information about the dog's location to a handheld device about the size of a large cell phone that did nothing except keep track of the dog's approximate location.

Some dedicated hunters ​still use radio telemetry systems ​but today they are a lot smaller and considerably more sophisticated than the original systems. However, these systems can be expensive. ​Some systems ​have the ability to track up to 20 dogs simultaneously and cost almost $4,000. Hunters continue to use them solely because they generally have a much greater range than GPS tracking units, up to 12 miles for some systems. They also have a much longer battery life than GPS systems. There are advantages and disadvantages of telemetry systems versus GPS systems.

Most wildlife tracking systems use radio telemetry tracking ​because of the longer battery life of these systems; it's hard to go catch a bear every three days to recharge its tracking collar. Collar battery life can also be a serious concern with dogs that get lost in the wilderness. If it takes six days to hike in and retrieve a dog, and the dog's GPS collar goes dead after three days, well, it's going to be a lot harder to retrieve the dog safely.

​GPS Tracking Systems

​GPS tracking systems that use a satellite to track the dog's location were ​invented and ​first marketed to hunters. The dog wears a collar with a small box on it, with or without an external antenna, and satellites are able to track the location of the dog and send information about the dog's location back to a handheld device. Many of the currently available systems combine GPS capability with remote ​collar functions. Hence, the dog only needs to wear one collar while hunting or being trained to hunt, and the dog's owner only needs to carry one receiver/transmitter.

Although they tend to have a shorter range than telemetry units, some of the newer ones are ​capable of ranges of up to ten miles. In addition, they have features that aren't available from telemetry units, such as overlaying the dog's position on a topographic map, providing information about the dog's exact distance from the handheld unit, emitting real-time alerts if a dog trees an animal or goes on point, sending information simultaneously to a portable unit and a tablet mounted in a vehicle, and providing exact walking/driving directions to get to the dog.

At the same time GPS trackers for hunting dogs were being brought to the market, other companies were exploring the use of GPS for locating and tracking many other things. GPS systems to guide drivers and retrieve stolen cars were invented. And then some brilliant person realized you could combine GPS with smartphone technology to let your average person track the location of their stolen bicycle, their children, their wallet, and endless numbers of other things. It was only a matter of time before this technology made the leap to tracking down errant and missing pet dogs.

​Who Should Buy a GPS Tracking System?

​Every dog owner should buy a GPS tracking system. Even if your dog isn't an escape artist, barely moves faster than a slow waddle, and has never chased after a squirrel in his life, he can still vanish. People leave gates open. Trees fall on fences ​leaving holes large enough for an elephant to get through. Dogs have been known to escape from pet sitters, dog walkers, groomers, and veterinarian offices. Another very common situation is the owner gets in a car crash. Terrified dogs often simply run away from car crashes, never to be seen again. This is so common there is even a Facebook group devoted to this type of situation.

If your dog is an escape artist, a hunting dog, or goes on off-leash hiking adventures with you, you are in even greater need of a GPS tracking unit.

Dog owners should use a multi-component system to keep their dogs safe. First, recall training, fences, and leashes. Second, contact information clearly displayed on the dog's collar. Third, a GPS tracking system. And fourth, as a final back-up, a microchip that is kept up-to-date.

​How Can I GPS My Dog?

​Most GPS tracking units marketed to pet dog owners involve a collar with a small unit attached to it and an antenna concealed inside the collar. Alternatively, some come with a small unit that can be attached to any collar, harness, or even a dog backpack.

Some of these units deliver information about your dog's location to your cellphone. Others come with a separate handheld device to track your dog, which can come in handy if you are in a location without reliable cell service.

​Scan Tags

​Another GPS technology in common use is the "rescue ID tag." These look like typical ID tags, but when scanned by someone's cellphone, information about the owner and the dog's urgent health needs immediately appear on the scanner's smartphone. ​Simultaneously, the owner's smartphone is alerted about the scanning event along with detailed information about the dog's current location.

​Real-Time Tracking

​Some of the real-time systems in current use will actively track your dog throughout the day and night and automatically analyze the dog's behavior. These systems will provide advice about whether your dog is getting sufficient exercise, and will also alert you if your dog's behavioral patterns suddenly change, which could indicate illness or an injury.

Many of the systems available on the market also allow you to define a "safe range" for ​your dog. Presumably this would ​be your fenced in backyard. If your dog exits the safe range, you will be instantly ​alerted that your dog has escaped and it tells you where your dog is, so you can race out and retrieve the errant pooch.

​Can You Put a GPS Tracker in Your Dog?


Most dog owners have encountered situations in which their dog managed to mysteriously ditch her collar, or they worry about the pup being stolen and the thief taking his collar off. Thus they ask the next logical question: "Is there some way to insert a GPS tracker into my dog, so ​he can't lose it?" Well, the answer right now is no.

​Microchips

​Pet owners are generally familiar with microchip technology, where a tiny chip about the size of a grain of rice is implanted ​under the dog's coat. When these RFID microchips are scanned, an identification number is returned to the scanner. Then, the number needs to be looked up in a database, accessed over the internet, in order to identify the owner.

This system works reasonably well to return errant dogs to their owners. However, it has three flaws:

  1. The microchips are made by different companies, and scanners that work for microchips from one company may not detect microchips made by other companies.
  2. The general public does not have access to the scanning technology and thus lost dogs need to be taken to a veterinarian or a shelter to be scanned, which can significantly delay the return of ​your dog​ 
  3. It is the owner's responsibility to keep their information up-to-date in the microchip database, and many owners forget to do this, or they forget which company manufactured the chip and thus can't update their information.

Microchips can be implanted in dogs because they are tiny and inert. These microchips don't consume power, run on batteries, or well, do anything unless pinged with an external scanner.

Even the smallest GPS tracking system units are about the size of a USB drive. That's a fairly large item to implant into a dog, particularly a small dog. In addition, they actively consume energy and run off a battery that needs to be recharged frequently. The recharging interval depends on the unit. Some units will need to be recharged as often as every day, while others can run for up to ten days before needing to be recharged. There is currently no available method to recharge the batteries on a unit inserted inside a dog.

​Do They Make GPS Chips for Dogs?

​GPS chips for dogs currently do not exist. It is possible they may exist in the future. There are two problems to overcome: significantly reducing the size of the devices, and figuring out how to recharge the battery. Technology ​currently used ​by pacemakers could ​one day be used to power an implanted GPS unit.

Currently pacemakers contain tiny batteries that last for five to ten years. ​After this time, the pacemaker has to be replaced through a minimally invasive surgical procedure. However, in the 1970s, there was a type of pacemaker in use that could be recharged externally by a device placed in contact with the skin. They went out of favor for ​unknown reasons and aren't in use anymore.

More recently, scientists have been working on building pacemakers that ​can be recharged by the body's own electrical energy fields. If this technology matures, it may someday be possible to implant a self-charging GPS unit into a dog. But this is not currently possible.

​Can I Track My Dog If He Has a Microchip?

​No, it is not possible to track a dog through a microchip. A microchip is an inert device. It does nothing until a scanner is placed on the dog's back and pings the microchip to obtain the ID number of the microchip. Microchips require the action of volunteers to find your dog, capture your dog, and transport your dog to someone who has a microchip scanner. Then, they have to figure out how to contact you, assuming you kept your contact information up-to-date in the microchip manufacturer's database.

A GPS unit is a totally different device than a microchip. When turned on, it continuously sends information about the location of the unit to a smartphone or an external handheld device, allowing the owner to monitor the dog's location in real-time and go to the dog's location to rescue the dog.

​How Much Is a GPS Tracker for a Dog?

​The cheapest GPS trackers aren't technically even trackers; they are tags the dog wears that can be scanned by anyone with a smartphone. Thus, they act similarly to implanted microchips. They do have some advantages over microchips, namely that anyone with a smartphone can scan them, and they instantly transmit information about the dog's location to the dog's owner when they are scanned. These models generally cost less than $30.

Your next cheapest option is to buy a GPS tracking unit designed for bicycles or children; these generally run around $50, but they pose a problem: how ​do you attach them to the dog? Most of these devices are square boxes intended to be carried in a backpack or pocket, or are designed to look like a bicycle light that is mounted on the bicycle with screws. A clever person could probably figure out how to attach one of these units to a dog's collar, but it wouldn't be as secure as a device specifically designed for dogs, and probably wouldn't be particularly comfortable for the dog to wear.

The next option is to buy a collar-mounted device designed for dogs. Some come pre-attached to a collar, while others can be attached to any collar of your choice. These tra​ckers cost between $150 to $200 to purchase and generally require a monthly subscription fee to a service that runs the network, which may be around $10 a month. There are a few of these devices available that do not require a subscription to a service.

Alternatively, you can buy a GPS tracking system designed for hunting dogs. These devices are generally rugged in construction. They're completely waterproof, have a long range, and come with a handheld device that receives the information instead of sending it to your smartphone. These systems, however, are not cheap. You can expect to spend $400 to $600 or even more for such a system. If you use a remote collar for training/controlling your dog, a combined training/GPS tracking system should be your first choice when looking at GPS tracking systems.

​Considerations Before Buying a GPS Tracker for Your Dog

Before buying a GPS tracking system, it is important to spend some time thinking about what factors are important for your ​dog and your lifestyle. Important considerations are:
  • Waterproof
  • Cell phone or receiver based
  • Range
  • Features
  • Battery recharging interval
  • Cost to buy
  • Subscription cost
  • Size of the unit

​Waterproof

​Anything and everything you put on your dog needs to be 100% waterproof. Being "water-resistant" means it will short out when it rains, your dog dives into the pond, or your dog decides to go wrestle with ​another dog in a mud puddle. The "water-resistant" unit may be cheaper upfront​, but you'll probably be replacing it often, and it will eventually cost more than just buying a waterproof system in the first place.

​Do You Have Reliable Cell Service?

​While smartphone-based systems are handy, they only work well if the area your dog is lost in has reliable cell service. If you go hiking or hunting with your dog, odds are your dog will get lost in an area without good cell service, in which case it would be convenient to use a system with a handheld receiver that can track your dog without the need for reliable cell phone service. If you never leave the city, a smartphone-based service is just fine.

If you opt for a system with a handheld receiver, check the range. A fast dog can get miles away from you in minutes, so a system with only a one-mile range isn't going to work too well unless you know which direction the dog was headed and you are a fast sprinter. Some of the current systems on the market have ranges of up to ten miles.

​Features

​Different systems have different features. Read them over carefully to see if you like them and think they might be useful for you. For example, some people who expect their dogs to self-exercise in the yard might find activity-tracking systems to be useful, but people who take their dog out for a five-mile jog every morning might think they are kind of silly.

​Battery Charging Interval

​Check the battery charging interval carefully. Battery charging intervals for different systems vary widely, with some needing to be charged every twelve hours while others can go for up to 10 days. Charging the batteries frequently can become a tedious, easy-to-forget chore. If your dog's GPS unit batteries have gone dead, it won't work.

​Size of the Unit

​People who own large dogs generally don't care about the size of the unit. It will work with their dog regardless. However, people who own small dogs should look for a small unit. An eight-pound pup can't really be expected to be comfortable when walking around with a huge, heavy box strapped to its neck all of the time.

​What's the Smallest GPS Tracker?

​The smallest GPS trackers are suitable for cats and small dogs. They weigh around 50 grams (about 1.7 ounces) and measure around 0.5 x 2 x 2 inches and are said to be suitable for animals weighing at least eight pounds. However, most GPS trackers are significantly larger, weighing around 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) and measuring 4 to 6 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. The larger units are often designed for very active dogs like hunting dogs, which are expected to get lost on a regular basis. They tend to have longer ranges and many more features, such as the ability to overlay a topographic map over the dog's location.

​Conclusion

​GPS ​tracking technology for dogs has come a long way since the first dog tracking telemetry systems were developed. Many affordable, easy-to-use GPS dog tracking systems are available to the average pet owner today.

Dogs get lost frequently. They run off after animals. They flee from car crashes. They wander off when someone leaves the gate open. Some dogs actively plot to escape and run off. Instead of doing the stressful lost-dog routine of calling all of the shelters, putting up posters, and searching on foot, with a GPS tracking system, ​you can rapidly and efficiently track down ​your errant pooch and retrieve ​your dog before something terrible happens.

For your dog's safety and your own peace of mind, why not consider obtaining a GPS tracking unit?

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