Does your dog really need a Wi-Fi-connected collar?

The Fi Smart Dog Collar is a GPS-enabled, Wi-Fi, and cellular-connected lost dog tracker, pedometer, sleep tracker, and more. I love my dog, but is all this data really necessary?

The Fi Smart Dog Collar looks like a regular collar, but packs a technological punch.
Ryan Wilchelns / Input

The humble dog collar is a staple of pooches everywhere and is about as simple as it gets in terms of the accessories it takes to keep a living breathing creature, like a dog, alive.

It’s like your belt: A strap of fabric that’s as much for show as it serves a practical purpose. In this case, a dog collar gives you something to hold onto and attach your tags to. Hopefully, it helps prevent your dog from running off in the first place, but if they ever do escape, it’ll make it more likely whoever finds them can bring them safely home.

But! A collar is useless until someone finds your best friend, check’s their collar, and then gives you a call. Fi is turning that idea on its head. Their $149 Fi Smart Dog Collar (plus the $100/year GPS+LTE plan) still does the regular analog collar things, but it also connects to the internet to make your dog’s life a little safer, smarter, and healthier. Instead of waiting for a good Samaritan’s help, you can get a head start locating your dog yourself, no waiting or posting flyers necessary.

Don’t get me wrong: Dogs have been living fine for eons without ever even thinking about their step count. The Fi Smart Dog Collar almost seems like an example of over data-fication — of fixing, or more accurately adding on to, what’s not broken. But for some owners, the peace of mind that comes from knowing you can find your pet if they run off, might be worth also knowing a little too much about their sleep habits.

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“Lost Dog” mode

My partner and I have, to put it nicely, an independent Siberian husky. That was the real reason I was personally interested in a smart collar. While training has definitely improved the 5-year-old’s recall and off-leash skills, it’s still frustratingly common for him to pick up a smell far more interesting than my repeated calls, or run off in chase of squirrels around our rural Colorado home. More than once he’s jumped a fence after a deer, only to be returned by a neighbor. Or snuck out of a gate accidentally left open just to check out the neighborhood, sending us (usually after dark) on a mission to find him.

I think it’s safe to say that the Fi Smart Dog Collar’s primary purpose is to make those frantic searches a little less frantic, but also does a good job of letting you know you need to start searching at all.

The Fi Smart Dog Collar pairs with a WiFi- and Bluetooth-connected base in your home, which doubles as a charging cradle.Ryan Wilchelns / Input

It starts by setting up the collar’s “home” (our home) and pairing it to the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-connected charging base in our living room. When the collar is close enough to pair with that base, the system knows our pup is at home. That keeps the cellular network and GPS powered down to save battery. According to Fi, a collar that is always connected to its home base will last roughly three months before a charge, better than other smart collars.

Once the Fi Smart Dog Collar loses that connection, it looks to see if there’s a phone nearby for it to pair with instead. Both my partner and I are registered as “owners” of our dog, so if we take him for a walk we won’t be setting off alarm bells. (You can also set up other users as “dog walkers” to keep an eye on where they are.) A couple of times a day, I’ll get a notification on my phone saying my partner took the dog for a walk, and if I check the app, I’ll see both my dog and partner paired up together — nothing to worry about.

The meat of the smart collar is a small unit, about the size of a couple quarters, that holds the GPS, accelerometer, and cellular antenna.Ryan Wilchelns / Input

You can also set up different “safe zones” at places where they spend their time, like a relative’s house or doggy daycare, so that if they’re within that perimeter, you won’t be alerted.

But if the collar is both away from home base (and outside any of those safe zones) and away from an owner, I’ll get a different notification, alerting me that the dog is somewhere without an owner. Typically that alert will also come with an address but if I click into the app, I can see exactly where he is thanks to the GPS and cellular antenna inside the collar, which updates the collar’s location every five minutes. That system isn’t instantaneous but has been reasonably quick. My partner once took him for a walk and let him go off-leash and I got a notification that he was alone within a few minutes of him getting beyond the Bluetooth range of her phone.

It does a good job of letting you know you need to start searching at all.

Once I see he’s gone and it’s time for me to initiate a search, I can use the app to enter “Lost Dog Mode.” That boosts location reports — giving me an updated spot every minute — and fires up a red blinking light on his collar, making him easier to spot in the dark (though, dogs with fur as long as mine might not see much benefit from that). I tested the system in our neighborhood with my partner taking our dog and leaving her phone at home, so the system thought he was alone. I was able to track them down within minutes. According to Fi, a full battery in the collar on Lost Dog Mode will last two days.

The downside to this system for folks like us who spend a lot of time in the mountains is that it relies on a cellular network that may not always be around. If you take your dog hiking where you don’t have cell service, there may not be any way for you to know where your dog is anyway. But at home or anywhere where you do have cell service, the accuracy has proven plenty accurate to track your pup down.

Healthy dog, happy dog

The biggest benefit of the smart collar for our writer was in tracking down an escaped husky.Ryan Wilchelns / Input

Also loaded into the Fi Smart Dog Collar are a couple of what I’ll call “bonus” features. Sensors in the collar track your dog’s step count as well as their sleep habits and time.

Steps can be displayed on an hour-by-hour basis, adding up to cumulative daily, weekly, and monthly counts. How many steps is enough? That’s hard to say for a dog and differs pretty wildly across breeds and individuals. You’ll need to watch what your dog does for a little while to get a sense of what a “normal” day is for them.

Where I found this little bit of data to be somewhat useful was, frankly, in guilting me to get him outside. Before the Fi Smart Dog Collar, it was pretty easy to ignore the fact that he hadn’t been on a walk today. But now, when I see he’s only taken 1,500 steps of his 7,500 step goal (that was a number chosen for us by the app), I’m admittedly more likely to get him out on a walk. Whether or not you want that tap on the shoulder is up to you to decide. I probably wouldn’t appreciate anyone encouraging me to go for a run for my health, but bring the dog into it and for some reason it doesn’t bother me as much. Owners of a dog with weight issues and a bigger reason to walk a set amount more regularly might find that even more important.

If you can’t hit your own daily step goals, maybe your dog can. The easy-to-navigate Fi app shows your pup’s walking and sleep habits.Ryan Wilchelns / Input

The smart collar also tracks sleep, something I think is even a little less useful. Dogs sleep a lot and how much is too much is hard to guess. But, similar to steps, looking for patterns and then noticing when something seems out of whack for your dog might be helpful at spotting related issues.

In addition to allowing you to easily see the location of your dog (and notifying you), their steps, and sleep habits, the Fi app also includes various social aspects like ranking their steps in your local area or across their breed, and allowing owners to post photos. We turned that off, finding it unnecessary and, frankly, a little bit stressful, but viewing your dog’s steps in relation to other dogs of the same breed can add context to that data.

Back to basics

Fi gives users the option of customizing their dog’s collar with numerous colors and styles.Ryan Wilchelns / Input

At the end of the day, despite all the fancy technology packed inside it, the Fi Smart Dog Collar still does all the basic things you expect from a collar. The straps come in a variety of colors, the whole thing is water and dustproof, the standard clasp is durable metal, and it obviously has the typical loop for attaching tags and a leash. We haven’t had any issues with ours holding up, even on an extremely active adventure dog.

Thankfully in the month that my dog has worn the Fi Smart Dog Collar, we haven’t had any real escapes, but after that much testing, I feel pretty good about the outcome if we did. The system inspires real confidence in our ability to give him a little bit more off-leash freedom, knowing we’ll have an easier time finding him if he gets adventurous.

And at $100/year, the plan is a pretty reasonable expense for the protection it offers.

And at $100/year, the plan is a pretty reasonable expense for the protection it offers. But maybe the biggest peace of mind that the collar gives us is when we leave him on his own, either at home for a couple of hours, or when we board him. If I want, I can always check the app to see that he’s where he’s supposed to be. But I don’t always feel like I need to check, confident that if he weren’t where he was supposed to be, I would get a notification and know about it.

That small reassurance feels like a decent step down from having a camera in my home to watch the dog 24/7 (something I’m very okay not having), but is definitely a safety blanket I’m happy to have. It’s not terribly hard to wade through the less-meaningful numbers and silly social aspects, just let the system do its thing, and trust that if something is wrong, I’ll get a notification.