My dog Roxy went missing 2 weeks ago. There have been no clues, and I must say the not knowing is the worst. I’ve done as much as I can with flyers and mailings, and am now feeling helpless. I feel as though I have let her down. She is microchipped, but that only works if an animal shelter scans her. I wish I could take a fully active role in her recovery rather than just waiting for someone to call. I may now have a solution, though not in time to help dear Roxy.

Microchipping is a passive technology using an embedded RFID token. To be seen, the dog must be scanned. Only vets & shelters have a scanner, and doing no good if the ‘caretaker’ has no desire to scan the dog. I was determined to not let Roxy’s fate – whatever that may be – befall my other dog Sophie, so I immediately went looking for a more active technical solution. GPS seemed to be an obvious choice.

GPS dog collars are not new – hunters have been using them for years. But such devices typically use collar transmitters that send their signals back to a master handheld tracking device. This does me no good when I am at work and the tracker is back home. If there were an Internet-enabled GPS system, I would be able to read the signal on the web from anywhere.

This is the premise behind the new Tagg device & service. Tagg is essentially like giving your dog a cellphone of their own. Piggybacking on the Verizon network, the Tagg collar device sends a GPS transponder signal to the back-end Internet service. Using the Tagg web site or an iPhone app, I can see at any time the precise location of the uniquely-identified collar device. And by establishing a “geo-fence” around my property, Tagg will notify me – by email and/or SMS – the instant Sophie strays outside her boundary.

The collar device – the “tracker” – attaches to the collar via a rubberized strap that clamps the holder lengthwise. The tracker then snaps into this holder. The device is a little larger than a car alarm fob, and rubber wings extend axially, containing the antenna. Tagg advertises itself as an animal-agnostic “pet tracker”, but I can tell you right now that it is large enough that my cat would hate it. The tracker is waterproof, which is good for a water-lover like Sophie. And not so bulky that it will get snagged on brambles. There is a pin on the holder that depresses an underside button on the tracker, so it knows when it is attached to it’s holder. It takes a two-finger pinch to remove the tracker from the holder, and this seems unlikely to happen by accident. However, other users have noted that the rubber clamps occasionally loosen and fall off the collar. We shall see…

Both the tracker and the docking station are actually GPS-enabled. The docking station plugs into any electrical outlet and is ideally placed where the dog will spend most of its time. This is because the collar and the dock communicate “out of band” with each other to ping relative location. Only when the tracker is outside the range of the dock will it ramp up to GPS-direct communication.

Because the tracker is an electronic device, obviously it must be charged. Supposedly, when within range of the dock the tracker will stay in low-power mode. When straying outside the boundary, GPS mode is engaged, which uses more juice. Tagg advertises an average life of 5 days before recharging, though if GPS is used sparingly, they say you might get as much as 30 days.

Luckily, when it is time for a recharge, the system will alert you. It will also alert when the charge is complete, when a firmware update is available, or when the tracker is removed from its holder. And of course, there are the alerts when the geo-fence is crossed. (Which BTW can be temporarily disabled by pushing the “going for a walk” button on the tracker itself.)

The geo-fence capability is able to define a circular boundary only, so if you have hopes of boxing into an odd-shaped zone, you can forget it. And despite the supposed tight GPS resolution, at even it’s smallest radius I still had to extend my zone far beyond my 1/2 acre property lines. This may be slightly off-putting to city dwellers and possibly even denizens of tract home suburbia.

The Tagg starter kit costs $99, and includes a tracker for the collar and a docking station for charging. After the first 3 free months, the service is $7.95 billed automatically. For a multiple-pet home, you would pay full price for each Tagg tracker, but only $1 more for the monthly service.

I’m very impressed with the system so far, and not just because I have a new toy for my iPhone. Their website is user-friendly, and when I had trouble with it accepting my credit card, their late-night customer service was excellent. And not in India. (Just sayin’.)

When Roxy comes home, you can be sure she’ll have a tracker of her own waiting.