Apr 17, 2023 - Technology

An AI babysitter for your dog

A dog in a living room looks at an entertainment device called the Companion

The Companion smart device is meant to entertain dogs while monitoring their health. Photo courtesy of Companion

A new smart device called Companion bills itself as an all-in-one nanny/tutor for your dog, stimulating and entertaining Fido while you work (or run out to buy grain-free artisanal dog food).

Why it matters: The humanization of dogs continues apace, as Americans treat the pooches they adopted during the pandemic like fur babies and happily spend crazy money on them.

Driving the news: Companion just started taking reservations for its $49-a-month device, which is scheduled to start shipping in May 2024.

  • The stationary device — which dispenses treats — "provides all day scheduled and on-demand engagement for your dog with games, behavioral programs and training," the company says.
  • It simultaneously monitors your dog's health, looking for "sudden or subtle shifts in your dog's movement or posture that can indicate pain, anxiety or stress."

How it works: The device uses "AI hardware, machine learning and best-in-class positive reinforcement techniques," Companion says.

  • For instance, by playing commands like "sit" using an owner's voice, the Companion teaches the dog obedience — while noticing any physical changes that might signal disease. (See a video here — scroll down to "mission and vision.")

What they're saying: "Every dog in the U.S. could benefit from more enrichment," says John Honchariw, the CEO and founder of Companion.

  • "There's this weird asymmetry between human children and pet children," he said. "We don't leave our human children alone, but we do leave our fur children alone, and people are anxious about that."
  • "We want to be able to give our kids, like whether it's a toddler, really good educational content. We also want to give our dog something really enriching — and even better if it helps us have better communication with it."

Honchariw, an engineer whose pedigree includes Google and Bain & Co., developed Companion for his rescue dog Boomer, a beagle-dachshund mix.

  • "He loves it, and it's his all-day play buddy," he said. "He eats 100% of his dog food through the device, so for him, it's like the world's most advanced food puzzle."
  • "And it really helped me because I know he's doing things and having fun at the same time and learning all the basic obedience commands."
  • "It's almost like starting a chatbot with your dog, or a device that can have a conversation with your dog."
A smartphone screen shown with the Companion device and a dog in the background.
Dog owners can control the Companion device through an app. Image courtesy of Companion

The big picture: As society grows more anthropomorphic, companies are selling more products that cater to our interest in treating animals like children — witness the Joipaw video game system for dogs or the trend toward human-grade dog food.

  • Total spending in the pet care industry is expected to increase to $277 billion by 2030, 134% higher than 2019 levels, per Morgan Stanley.
  • "We want to be with our dog 24 hours a day," Honchariw says.

Where it stands: Companion says it's raised $14 million, with backers that include Lerer Hippeau and Digitalis Ventures, and its advisory board includes veterinarians who specialize in dog training and the human-animal bond.

  • On Monday, Companion will have a "demo day" at the San Francisco SPCA to show how the device works.

What's next: Cats. "We've already had cats engaged with the device, and they love it," says Honchariw, who envisions one day creating a dedicated feline-oriented Companion.

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