A dog being able to live well among people and other dogs isn’t just a nicety. It can mean the difference between having a home or being in a shelter. A company called Companion will soon ship a smart device it hopes will radically increase access to and ease of pet training.
it was in prototype stage and wasn’t much to look at. The new go-to-market version was designed by Frog Design, known for its work on Sony televisions and Apple Macs. The look is a far cry from the cheap schlock one normally associates with pet products and it could help Companion make the case that a pet trainer is something you want in your living room.
While the design has changed, the functional goal has not: The Companion trainer uses sensors to observe your pet in detail and feed those signals to onboard AI so the machine can respond with light, sound or a treat to reinforce desirable habits. “Animals already ‘talk’ and communicate quite a bit through movement and posture,” says John Honchariw, CEO and founder of Companion. “Technology’s going to help us pick up on all of that over time.”
The device only uses positive reinforcement, eschewing the negative stimuli associated with the largely outdated and discredited schools of thought around dog training. Companion says its technology will create a step change in training because it’s a machine: Unrelenting focus and patience, precise repetition and consistency are things it does naturally and that humans just aren’t wired for.
Honchariw also boasts of how Companion will integrate human trainers as “Companion Coaches,” available for video consultation and able to provide other feedback in the app to help first-time adopters or anyone who wants a savvy assist. “These are service dog-level trainers there to monitor the data and answer your questions about being a first-time pet parent.” The app that integrates the human trainers is also where the device shares clips of your dog interacting with it through the day.
Companion has attracted an interesting basket of funders, including IA Ventures; Tuesday Capital, formerly the CrunchFund; frog Design; Mars Companion Fund, an investment arm of the largest pet products company, and the Jimmy Kimmel-affiliated Wheelhouse Group. Companion’s offices are adjacent to the San Francisco SPCA which it has worked with to design, prototype and test the device since 2018.
The pandemic may have been auspicious timing for the company. Many shelters are bracing for a wave of dog surrenders: Some of it will be economically motivated, but some will happen when a mass return to work and school triggers separation anxiety in pets left alone for the first time. Honchariw says early test results suggest the device can be effective at calming those nervous pets. A recent study by Merck Animal Health found that 73% of first-time dog adopters have considered rehoming their pet due to various issues related to lack of support.
Companion is now taking email signups from pet guardians who want to be among the first to preorder the device. Pricing will be announced closer to its initial deliveries in mid-2021.