There are certain sounds that will summon my sister’s dogs as if from thin air: the whisper of the refrigerator seal breaking, the crinkle of a bag being opened, the gentle footfalls of the postman. You might have noticed their freakin’ names didn’t make this list, but another sound that could have is the chime of the PlayStation 4 booting up. That’s right, these dogs love video games. They love the expletive-laced commentary, the rump-rumbling DualShock 4 vibrations, and the hours upon hours of couch cuddling a typical gaming session entails. But as much as I enjoy sharing my favorite hobby with my fur-niece and fur-nephew, they aren’t true gamers. Or at least they weren’t until CleverPet.
For every game console Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo makes, I have a photo somewhere of Ziggy and Baxter getting their game on.
CleverPet is a digital entertainment device that engages and rewards your dog for solving puzzles – using a combination of colors, lights and sounds – that scale in difficulty according to your dog’s ability. In other words, CleverPet is a game console for dogs! To be honest, accidentally clicking a sponsored post in my Facebook news feed usually results in me rage quitting the app, but CleverPet was the exception. I never did end up going back to look at my mom’s vacation photos (and I never will, mom, so stop tagging me) but I did find a way for Ziggy and Baxter’s never-ending “Let’s Play” to end with them actively participating in something that they’ve only ever enjoyed from the sidelines. I thought this game console could be a game changer, but Lauren was dubious.
“I don’t know if Baxter is clever enough for something like the Cleverpet,” she said. “I mean, this is the dog that responds to the name ‘Pickle.’”
I think Ziggy could pick it up pretty fast. She’s smart.
“Baxter is smart! He knows to come when you say pickle!”
As our conversation on the merits of a Fido-focused game console devolved into Xbox Live-worthy trash talk, I realized that we didn’t just need to try a CleverPet, we needed to try two CleverPets. Sure, the dogs would be the ones actually testing the hubs, but they wouldn’t be the only ones playing. We humble hoomans would be the Navi to their Link, the Tails to their Sonic, the Luigi to their Mario, the crowbar to their Gordan Freeman in the first inter-species competitive co-op game console battle. Dog vs. Dog. Sister vs. Sister. Thank you, Cleverpet, for tearing our family apart. Now let the games begin!
Kristen’s Pick: Ziggy is literally a bitch, but figuratively that role falls to Baxter. She basically owns him, and I have high hopes that – with the help of the CleverPet – she will pwn him. Sure, she’s stubborn, but she’s also incredibly inquisitive.
Breed: Yorkshire Terrier
Age: 5 years
Weight: 5 lbs
Lauren’s Pick: Baxter isn’t the squeakiest toy in the chest, but he is the hungriest. This four-legged garbage disposal will enthusiastically eat anything – even kale, and that sh*t is gross. He’s no novice when it comes to puzzles either. If two day old pizza crust can motivate him to break into the locking kitchen garbage, loading the CleverPet with premium treats will ensure he’s the high scorer!
Breed: Miniature Schanuzer
Age: 10 years
Weight: 25 lbs
Before the devastating pwnage could commence, we had to unbox and setup the Cleverpet hubs. This was made super easy by the Apple-esque packaging, with numbered stickers on the hub walking you through the different parts and a clean, clear startup guide for the getting the app and hub communicating over WiFi. As for the hub itself, it is a sleek dome shape, far more streamlined than the initial Kickstarter design. At 6.3 inches high, 14.6 inches wide and 16.1 inches deep it takes up just a little more space than an extra-large dog bowl. And as it gets similarly slobbered on, I am happy to report that it is extremely durable, with a non-slip bottom that can withstand vigorous nosing and touch pads that can withstand equally vigorous stomping.
The hub arrives fully-assembled; all you need to do to get started is open the spring-loaded hatch, fill the food pod with treats, and read the startup guide. It’s easy! Almost as easy as tearing it apart to take photos, which is how I got started. The dome, food pod and treat tray with stainless steel food dish are all removable, which makes for “easy cleaning” according to the startup guide. It also makes for easy troubleshooting according to me, as access to all of the moving parts is sometimes essential for clearing kibble-gone-rogue. Jamming wasn’t too common, especially if using dry, firm treats, but when jamming did occur the solution was to remove the food pod. If that didn’t work, remove the treat tray. And if that didn’t work, shake the ever lovin’ sh*t out of the hub. Thankfully, the hub is impressively engineered, built hardy enough that I could, in my frustration, skip straight to step three with no repercussions.
The most impressive part of the hub is what you don’t see: the software. The idea of the CleverPet was born when three cognitive science PhD candidates at the University of California – Leo Trottier, Dan Knudsen, and Philip Meier – started discussing whether they could use advanced cognitive and behavioral science techniques to develop a device that would train animals automatically. They could and they did. While the science behind CleverPet – animal cognition, associative learning, adaptive training – might be complex, its operation is simple. The hub has three touchpads. Depending on the challenge, the touchpads light up in different dichromatic-friendly colors with different levels of brightness and emit different tones. When your dog successfully completes a challenge, the food tray swivels out to reveal a treat.
I should say “pet” rather than “dog,” because canis lupis familiaris isn’t the only furry friend using the CleverPet. Aside from reptiles, who prefer chasing after live food, and cats, who prefer being waited upon by their homo sapien servants, the hub has been enjoyed by “donkeys, parrots, raccoons, servals, elephants, ferrets, foxes,” according to CleverPet CEO Leo Trotier. “It was very surprising to see foxes dive on to the CleverPet Hub, as though they were diving into snow to get food.” That’s because the idea of a “free lunch,” while nigh irresistible to humans, is anathema in the animal kingdom; research shows that most animals prefer to work for their food. It’s known as “contrafreeloading,” a term coined in 1963 by animal psychologist Glen Jensen, referring to the observed behavior in which an organism, when offered a choice between provided food or food that requires effort to obtain, prefers the food that requires effort. CleverPet believes this so wholeheartedly that they offer a 30 Day Engagement Guarantee: if you’re not happy with your dog’s engagement after working with the CleverPet support team, you have 30 days from the delivery date to return the hub for a full refund.
What pushes CleverPet beyond a treat-dispensing Simon Says is that it automatically adjusts the difficulty depending on your dog’s skill level, just like a video game. If your pet is a hardcore gamer, they will quickly ramp up to advanced challenges like choosing the brightest touchpad, completing sequences, and matching colors. If your pet is a casual gamer, they will get a treat for pressing any one of the three touchpads, or as I have dubbed it “story mode.” As your dog advances through the challenges, of which there are currently 12, the difficulty even scales within the individual challenges so they never get bored. Through the app, you can also manually return to the previous challenge in case your dog dumb-lucks their way to the next challenge prematurely.
That’s not all the app does. In addition to tracking your pup’s progress and providing video tutorials/links to helpful support articles, the app tracks how many times they’ve played and how many treats they’ve eaten each day. It also allows you to adjust the hub’s settings, changing when it is active and how many kibbles it dispenses. Overall, it’s a clean and simple UI, but the stats could stand some embellishment; I wanted to know when they were playing, how long between plays, and how that stacked up against how many times they played over the course of a day, a week, a month. The type of people willing to purchase a game console for their pet are into tech, so don’t be afraid to give us more of those sweet, sweet analytics!
“This is a very interesting review of the CleverPet,” you say with thinly veiled sarcasm. “But I came for the doggo deathmatch!” And a doggo deathmatch you will have! We decided on a 30-day period during which we would coach and observe the doggos as they put the hub, and their problem solving skills, to the test. At the end of the month, one dog would be crowned winner. And one sister would be insufferably smug.
THE FIRST WEEK
Ziggy literally levitated the first time the food tray opened. The CleverPet isn’t loud, but neither is it particularly quiet. I should have taken the advice of introducing Ziggy to the hub while it was powered down, but I felt pressured because…
Baxter is out of the gate and running, or chewing rather. The hub starts out by offering food to your dog “for free,” their only task being to eat from the food tray a few times in a row. Or in Baxter’s case, all the times in a row.
Baxter has already moved on to Challenge 2: Exploring the Touchpads while Ziggy is still steeling her nerves for Challenge One: Eating the Food. Thankfully CleverPet has put together a library of advice and answers, and I have consulted an article on what to do with a cautious pet. I powered on the hub, waited for the tray to open, and then powered it off. A few cheddary Charlee Bear treats in the open food tray to lure her over, and she was finally eating from the hub. Even after I plugged it back in!
I can’t believe Baxter has already advanced to the second challenge this fast, not that it’s that difficult a jump; with all the touchpads lit up, it is easy to accidentally trigger the food tray. What I’m impressed with is the fact that he’s not disturbed by the noises coming from the hub when the food pod spins or the food tray opens. This is a doggo that gets scared by the sounds of his own farts and will straight up shun you Amish-style if you sneeze.
Today we dogsat Casey, a friend’s Westie, and she immediately skill-shamed Ziggy and Baxter by crushing the second challenge – she skipped straight past the tutorial to the boss fight!
By the end of the day, Baxter’s hub alerted me to the fact that he’d reached Challenge 3: Engaging Consistently. No surprise there, with TWO dogs power eating their way through the generous fistful of treats I’d loaded earlier in the morning. Maybe it’s time to engage the treat limit option via the app?
Ziggy is pawing at the touchpads, but ever so gently; they’re sensitive, but not so sensitive that a gentle breeze will trigger them. She keeps looking back at me like, “this thing is broken!”
No maybe about it. I have engaged the treat limit option via the app.
Ziggy is still hover handing the touchpads. Under normal circumstances I would be thrilled with her progress – from fearing the hub was the first harbinger of the robo uprising to (almost) touching the touchpads in just five days! But these are not normal circumstances, this is a competition. I tried pressing her paw down on the touchpad, and within minutes there was a video waiting for me in the app about how you should never press their paws down on the touchpad. The robo overlords know I am cheating!
What the hell does a yellow light mean? Low on food? Good work, Baxter! Usually binge eating would be viewed as a bad thing (outside of the context of a breakup, then all bets are off) but since it’s a measure of gaming success in this case I’m pretty damned pleased he’s gorging himself to a higher score. I want to win, but I also want to be able to pay rent so it’s time to drop back to cheaper treats.
Today I got down on all fours on the floor and mimed scratching at the touchpads. No videos forbidding charades were waiting for me in the app, so I guess this method is okay with the robo overlords.
Baxter was doing so well yesterday, but today he’s just standing in front of the hub and intensely staring at it as if the power of his gaze alone will manifest treats. Is this a step back or a silent protest against my loading the hub with less expensive nom noms?
I have coached Ziggy to victory, and without berating her like Béla Károlyi! Ziggy has learned to actually touch the touchpads, and has gone on a treat-eating tear.
The distant sound of a food tray opening from somewhere deeper in the house has completely thrown Baxter off his game. He has abandoned his hub to lick the crumbs from Ziggy’s.
Ziggy is more interested in pressing the touchpads than eating the treats, which is fine by an opportunistic Baxter. But this is seriously skewing the data, dammit! I think we’re going to have to choose the winner based on observation rather than calculation.
Where Ziggy seems tentative in her approach, gently pawing at the hub, Baxter is throwing himself in there Leeroy Jenkins-style. He’s not afraid to mash his nose against the touchpads.
Ziggy is a couple days into Challenge 4: Avoiding Unlit Touchpads, and I can really see the teeny tiny gears turning. I am surprised by how fun it is to watch her “play,” seeing her working through the puzzles in her own time. Just don’t take too much time, Ziggy!
Baxter is is starting to grasp the concept that a lit touchpad = “Hooray! Food!” and an unlit pad = super sad sound.
They have both started playing without an audience, preferring CleverPet to cuddles!
This is bullsh*t! Why is no one cuddling with me?
Ziggy has reached Challenge 5: Learning the Lights, which I anticipate will slow her meteoric rise; unlike Baxter, who explores the touchpads nose-first, Ziggy uses her paws so her eyes can stay locked on the magic food portal.
Baxter is treating this competition like it’s his job. And while I’d be more impressed if he got a real job and started contributing to his veterinary care, it’s still pretty awesome that he’s engaging with the CleverPet. Every. Single. Day. When he is not at his hub, he is at Ziggy’s, watching and learning from her gameplay.
Ziggy isn’t progressing, in terms of the puzzle. But she is progressing in terms of becoming a true gamer because she is grinding. In this context, it means defiantly pawing away at the same touchpad until it triggers the food tray.
Baxter is still lagging behind Ziggy in reaching new challenge levels, but he’s got a secret advantage that will ultimately put him on top. He’s hungry. He’s always hungry.
Ziggy is still grinding, completely ignoring the lights and sounds, and staring me dead in the eyes while she does it to boot. If I could teach her to pound away on a keyboard with the same single mindedness, she could have a thriving gold farming business in no time.
He’s mastered the lights. I’m so proud of you Pickle!
I thought Ziggy had really been racking up the points this past week. But a surprise visit home for lunch has revealed the awful truth. Baxter has been running from room to room, playing on both hubs!
Baxter has stumbled upon his own version of the Konami cheat code. He is dominating both hubs at once! I don’t know if Ziggy is even still in the game at this point. Hopefully, all that dashing back and forth from room to room will counterbalance his caloric intake.
THE TOP DOG
When the liver-flavored treat dust finally settled, Baxter and Lauren came out on top. Ziggy might have scored more “lifetime points” than Baxter, but since Fatty Magoo liberally utilized his “cheat code” during the last week of competition, we went by who progressed furthest through the challenges. As the only member of the winning team with opposable thumbs, Lauren was tasked with writing up some final thoughts. But because it was 200+ words of gloating (and because I am a sore loser) I deleted it; basically it summed up as “nanny nanny boo boo, my dog beat you.” Of course, in the doggos’ minds they are both winners, having gotten to play with a “toy” that both stimulates their brains and fills their bellies.
The only thing missing from CleverPet is a camera; I know the pet camera market is already saturated with treat-tossing devices like Furbo, Petcube and Petzi, but if the Cleverpet added night vision on top of everything else it does, it would be an absolute steal at $299. Of course, if it had a camera, it would
probably certainly cost more than $299. Ultimately, I can’t fault the Cleverpet for lacking a camera; if anything, it makes it an even more authentic game console, as even PlayStation and Xbox bundle their camera sensors separately. The only complaint, and I am really nitpicking, is that the app could stand to be more robust, something that will hopefully be addressed with a future update.
Even though the human-facing app still needs refinement, the dog-facing hub is everything it promises and more. More than a tracker. More than a feeder. More than a puzzle. As I watched Ziggy and Baxter exploring different methods to conquer the same challenges, learning from each other how to advance to the next challenge, and consistently returning to play with the hub and each other, I realized CleverPet is a real game console. And Ziggy and Baxter are finally real gamers.
This review is based on refurbished retail units provided by Cleverpet.