How to make a walkie talkie for your dog

How to make a walkie talkie for your dog

Before Dug the Dog—the lovable talking canine from Disney’s 2009 blockbuster animation Up—there was Zoe, the Alsatian police dog. While Dug’s goofy gaffes and brainwave-reading, voice-box collar endeared him to audiences, Zoe’s ability to follow her master’s commands from afar–performing tricks like climbing a ladder, turning a faucet on and off, and even removing her own collar–was especially impressive because she was real.

Rewind to June 1939 when Popular Science published a brief story about Zoe, a dog whose Australian constable master strapped a shortwave radio to her back and taught her to follow his remote orders. Wireless canine technology has a come a long way since 1939, including collars with everything from GPS trackers to biosensors, but if you want to talk to your dog through a collar—or, better yet, have your dog talk to you through a collar—you’ll have to build one yourself.

Credit: Popular Science Archives

If the latter seems daunting—building a device to read your dog’s brainwaves and articulate the thoughts riding on them through a miniature collar-speaker—it is. Not even Elon Musk’s Neuralink has pursued canine mind-reading, speech-translator collars (not yet, at least). But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. Sort of.

In 2019, a group of engineering students at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, started an organization, Alma’s Talking Dogs, devoted to enhancing “communication between dogs and humans by using EEG technology, signal processing, and machine learning to interpret brainwaves from dogs in order to understand them and their behaviors better,” according to their website. In videos, Alma, their reluctant canine participant, seems less interested in a dog-to-human communications breakthrough than in the tasty treat the students have to offer. Still, it’s an impressive rig the students strapped on Alma’s back and connected to her head to parse, at a rudimentary level, canine brain activity. Who knows, with enough canine behavior training data, maybe artificial intelligence really will give voice to dogs one day.

Of course, you could fake it, the way Disney did when they wired up a golden retriever in a 2016 promotional prank. With a remote camera and speaker, Bob Peterson—the voice of animation Dug—supplied the vocals as real-life Dug roamed around a sunny park, surprising people with his biting and playful commentary. 

For pet owners who are serious about keeping an eye on their pets remotely, there are options. By leveraging advances in biosensing, GPS tracking, and machine learning, a slew of companies now offer smart collars with a variety of sensing features. PetPace, Whistle, Tractive, Jiobit, and Fi offer tracking using some combination of GPS and LTE-M, a low-power cellular network meant to support internet of things (IoT) devices. Of course, there’s the smart tag option, like Apple’s AirTag, or similar devices from companies like Tile. But air tags rely mostly on Bluetooth, which means their range is bound by the nearest signal. Bluetooth typically can’t transmit more than a maximum of about 200 feet (more like 30–50 feet, reliably), which won’t work when real-life Dug gets lost in the woods. For the record, Apple doesn’t recommend using their AirTag for pets.

[ Related: Dogs can understand more complex words than we thought ]

For pet owners who would like to go beyond tracking or sensing, fortunately it won’t require saddlebags’ worth of gear. But it will require a do-it-yourself style hack if you’d like to address to your canine loved one when you’re away, or when they’ve been entrusted to the care of a kennel. And, you’ll likely want to turn to cellular technology, that is, calling your furry friend, which of course means adding them to your family’s phone plan. There may be other alternatives, such as cellular-enabled walkie talkies that use push-to-talk, or PTT, technology. But PTT may be a more challenging hack.

Auto-answer is the key

Most cell-enabled smartwatches offer an accessibility feature called auto-answer. For an Apple Watch, this capability can be found in Settings>Accessibility>Auto-Answer. The capability is designed for watch users who might not be able to easily answer calls on their own. Although Apple undoubtedly didn’t have pets in mind, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work. Other smartwatches, like Samsung Galaxy, offer similar accessibility, auto-answer features.

If you’re willing to absorb the considerable cost of getting your pet their own cell-enabled watch and accompanying plan, then here’s how you might assemble a collar that allows you to talk to your dog—and allows your dog to bark back at you. Oh, and since it’s a smartwatch with all the bells and whistles, you should be able to take advantage of GPS to track and locate a lost device—er, dog. But don’t count on the smartwatch’s biosensing features to track vitals or activity, like daily steps—all that fur will likely befuddle the sensors, not to mention the difference in gait between a biped and quadruped.

Suggested setup

For the smartwatch, choose a model like the Apple Watch Series or Samsung Galaxy Watch; they’ll need to be equipped with cellular. Don’t forget to activate the device on your phone plan. Look for a rugged case designed for watches, like the Catalyst Waterproof Case. It’s ideal to use a watch case, versus a smart tag collar case, because it’s designed to allow you to charge it without having to remove the watch from the case. 

Attaching the watch to your pet’s collar can be as easy as strapping it on, using the existing wristband, but it will be a bit cumbersome. Depending on the size of the watch case, it might be possible to rig it to a smart tag mount that dangles off the collar. Either way, make sure it’s secure, especially if your dog is energetic. And make sure it’s positioned so they can’t chew or swallow it. Remember to enable and test auto-answer and GPS tracking. 

Don’t forget training

Just as Zoe the police dog had to be trained by her constable to respond to his remote voice commands, so you’ll want to acclimate your pet to responding to your voice through a tiny collar-bound speaker. It will seem weird, but regularly speaking to your dog through the device while you’re nearby will probably help. Be sure to reward your dog with treats and positive reinforcement when they respond appropriately. It might be worth consulting a professional dog trainer for tips—that is, if they don’t hang up on you for strapping a cellphone to your furry friend in the first place.