Technology manufacturer Garmin recently released a new dog training collar, the Delta Smart, which allows a dog owner to utilize tone, vibration, and electronic stimulation through a smartphone app. The collar offers several distinct functions: Activity Tracker, Remote Trainer (my term), Bark Limiter, and Keep Away.
The Delta Smart has already come under fire, due to concerns over its smartphone interface and the fact that electronic collars are controversial in any case. There is also legitimate confusion over the device, due to vague advertising on Garmin’s part and inaccurate claims made by its opponents. It has been suggested that users would be empowered to shock their dogs from behind their desks at work, for example, but that would not be possible, since the Bluetooth technology on which the remote training feature depends only works over very short ranges.
Much of the current protest also lumps together specific concerns over the Delta Smart with generic concerns over remote electronic collars as a class of training aid. To those that acknowledge such tools have obvious utility and may in fact be used responsibly, the argument that all shock is abuse doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the discussion. Nor do some of the theories being floated as to what makes this device particularly dangerous, such as the bogus claim an owner can shock his dog through his smartphone while at work.
The most plausible (and least hysterical) concerns raised publicly so far may be found in a newly issued IAABC position statement. These involve the possibility that the Delta Smart’s Bluetooth and/or smartphone interface may introduce latency issues, resulting in untimely punishments. Significant latency would be a serious issue, but it’s unclear how big a risk this actually is. Other electronic training tools, not to mention a gazillion other gadgets, utilize Bluetooth for reliable short range communication without running into latency problems, at least on an order that would be detrimental in a typical dog training context.
All in all, I’ve found the static surrounding this device pretty annoying. The only thing that comes across crystal clear is that the idea of a dog owner controlling his pet’s behavior through a smartphone strikes a collective nerve.
Then a funny thing happened. I was aimlessly wandering Chicago’s downtown, killing time while my daughter attended a party, when I literally looked up and discovered Garmin had opened a flagship store on Michigan Avenue. Who knew?
Sadly, the clerk I encountered wasn’t very knowledgeable about dog training or the Delta Smart unit. Nor was there a demo model in the store. But on the upside, Garmin offers a 30-day return policy. Sold. I even splurged for the optional Keep Away Tag, which allows one to establish off-limit locations within the home, such as the pantry or trash can.
Being a luddite, I asked the salesperson to help me download the Garmin app and connect the new equipment up to my iPhone. It’s worth noting that even before I left the store, the collar was clearly malfunctioning. The Keep Away Tag, which is supposed to put out a signal to correct a dog within a radius of only 1-3 feet (precise distance to be programmed by the user through the smartphone app), was somehow triggering continuous tone corrections at the full length of the store, which I estimated to be at least 50 feet.
Back home, I spent two days on the phone with Garmin tech support. The first person I spoke to admitted his unit was also acting funny on his end. This was later explained, but not in a way that made very much sense. Anyhow, I followed their instructions and resumed testing the collar, although only on myself, not on any actual dogs.
I’m not going to discuss every feature of the Delta Smart here, just the most controversial. These are the remote training function, whereby the user manually presses a button on a smartphone display to deliver a tone, vibe, or electronic stimulation, and the Keep Away function, which uses a separate tag to automatically deter one’s dog from approaching the trash can, say.
The remote training function only works over very short distances. Garmin advertises a range of 10 meters indoors and 30 meters outdoors, meaning the Delta Smart boasts the least capability in this respect, compared to other remote training collars. This limitation combined with the clunky smartphone interface would appear to take all but the most rudimentary training applications off the table. It’s possible the remote training function was something of an afterthought. The product’s main selling points seem to be its Activity Tracker, Bark Limiter, and Keep Away functions.
Given the erratic behavior of the Keep Away function while inside the Garmin store, I couldn’t guess at what further testing at home might reveal. What I observed was genuinely distressing.
To reiterate, the Keep Away Tag is meant to allow the user to establish a modest radius (programmable up to 1 meter or 3 feet), within which the dog would be corrected automatically (via tone, vibration, electronic stimulation, or a combination). At least that’s what is strongly implied by the owner’s manual and packaging, which refer repeatedly to a 1 meter or 3 foot range.
In reality, the range is unpredictable and the type of correction applied isn’t always the type selected. When set on electronic stimulation at the longest range (presumably 1 meter), my Delta Smart collar regularly activated at distances of 6-12 feet away from the Keep Away Tag. Equally alarming, the timing of those corrections had little to do with actual proximity to the sensor. The collar appears to be designed to issue brief stimulations spaced a full six seconds apart, and it’s a crap shoot as to how close the collar happens to be when they get delivered. In other words, a dog might be corrected initially at 1 foot away, then again at 10 feet away as he hastily retreats. Or he might be corrected briefly at 6 feet away, then succeed at tipping the trash can anyhow.
Following is a brief video documenting another problem, erratic tone corrections at a distance of 16 feet from the Keep Away Tag. And just as an aside, my Delta Smart collar has so far logged over 20 barks, despite never being around a dog’s neck.
In summary, this product doesn’t work as advertised, and its design flaws pose a clear risk to pets. Regardless one’s attitude toward electronic training aids or punishment generally, we should all be able to agree that unpredictable and poorly timed punishment is problematic, not to mention unfair. While I hate to see the very real problems with this product conflated with boilerplate anti-shock rhetoric, my experience with the Delta Smart collar frankly suggests that a recall is in order.