Recently, I've seen some ads for home camera systems designed specifically with pets in mind. They have fancy upgraded options, like a laser-pointer toy you can remotely activate and a treat-dispensing function you operate with your phone.
Personally, I think the very best camera is a plain-and-simple Nest Cam, which has a speaker function. I think this is the only important feature a puppycam needs to have.
Here's my experience incorrectly using the speaker to completely freak out my dog, how I learned to use it correctly to make it a beneficial training tool, and why I think treat-dispensing cameras and cameras with laser-pointers are terrible ideas.
How I Misused the Speaker
As I explained in this article about how I use the Nest Cam to spy on my dog, I leave Chance barricaded in my kitchen when I leave him home alone. I set up his dog bed, a water bowl, and a toy for him, then block the door with a baby-gate. I put the Nest Cam on the other side of the gate on a chair. When I first started leaving Chance alone, he had a little bit of separation anxiety. The first time I used the Nest Cam, I saw him pacing a little bit. Excited to use the speaker-function on the Nest Cam, I activated the button in the app and said, "It's ok, buddy! You're fiiiiiine."
He did stop pacing--but NOT because I'd made him feel any better! Rather, he stood bolt upright, his eyes went huge, and his ears strained to hear my voice again. He frantically started sniffing, searching the kitchen for me, before finally settling into an uneasy sit, staring bullets at the front door. I could practically see him thinking WHAT IN GOD'S NAME IS GOING ON RIGHT NOW?!
My genius idea to calm my dog down had totally backfired. Instead, he was more nervous than before--because I had upended the logic he understood. Previously, he had understood that I was "not there." He wasn't happy about it, but he knew something solid. However, with the arrival of my disembodied voice, he had been plunged into uncertainty. Maybe I WAS there somewhere? But why couldn't he see me? Or at least smell me?? AND WHY WAS I HIDING??
So that's how I learned not to interfere with my dog's environment unnecessarily.
How I Used the Speaker CORRECTLY
That experience taught me that using the speaker made my dog unsure of my presence, which in and of itself was a somewhat negative experience (in that it made him uneasy).
So under what circumstances would it be BENEFICIAL to make my dog unsure of my presence?
When he's doing something bad!
If I could catch him in the middle of doing something that he wasn't supposed to be doing, and I used the speaker to transmit a disembodied voice issuing a correction, he would not be able to reach any other conclusion other than MY HUMAN IS ALWAYS WATCHING.
This is how I trained him to respect the gate in the first place--when I was there with him, getting him used to the baby-gate, I could correct him verbally with a "EH EH EH" whenever he touched the gate.
If he had the freedom to explore and experiment with the baby-gate without correction (like when he was home alone), he could probably figure out that all he needs to do to bring it down is grab it with his teeth and pull towards himself (he can't push it through the door because it's wedged against the door jamb fortunately).
Fortunately, he did investigate the baby-gate a couple times while home alone--while I was watching on the Nest Cam. I was able to activate the speaker and issue an "EH EH EH!" correction right away.
He looked up, just as surprised as the first time I'd used the speaker. However, he also seemed to understand that I was reprimanding him. He scurried back to his bed and promptly lowered himself into his neatest, most obedient "down." I activated the speaker one last time to say, "Gooood boy." That was it.
After maybe four or five instances where this happened, Chance no longer pushes at the baby-gate. Sometimes he'll get up, wander around the kitchen a little, but he always calmly returns to his bed to nap.
Why a Treat-Dispensing Camera Will Probably Backfire
You may be thinking, "well instead of saying 'good boy,' if you had a treat-dispensing camera, you could treat him for returning to his bed!"
This is a true statement. HOWEVER. The treat pops out of the camera. In Chance's case, he would be rewarded for GETTING OFF THE BED AND GOING BACK TO THE CAMERA (and the baby-gate). Which is not at all what I want to reward.
Additionally, I don't think Chance needs a reward that's higher in value than the calm comfort of his bed. He's learned that when he just chills out on his bed and takes a few naps, eventually I come back in the door and he's rewarded with lots of love and a walk. There's nothing inherently unpleasant about his bed that necessitates the addition of treats.
I could see how someone might want to use a treat-dispensing camera if they WANTED to lure their dog away from something TO the camera. Say, for example, your dog just barks out the window at passersby when home alone. You could use the speaker to say, "Trixie, come!" and spit out some treats from the camera. If Trixie immediately stopped her barking and scampered over to the camera for the treats, she would in fact be rewarded for 1) stopping barking, and 2) obeying the "come" command.
BUT...what if Trixie DIDN'T come? What if Trixie ignored "Trixie, come," and just kept barking until the person outside walked away? The treats are still there on the ground. So she finishes barking, scampers to the treats on the floor, and gobbles them up. Now, she's BEING REWARDED for 1) barking, 2) ignoring "come," and 3) continuing to bark until the person outside went away.
My guess is the second scenario is MUCH more likely to happen, which means a treat-dispensing camera can actually RUIN training you've been working really hard on at home.
There's Only One Reason to Get a Camera With a Laser-Pointer
One. One reason, and one reason only. And that reason is....
If you have no dogs, only cats.
That's it. That's the only reason. Because you should NEVER EVER EVER USE A LASER-POINTER ON YOUR DOG. Read this article to find out why. (Long story short--it can cause a lot of psychological damage.)
TL; DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
- Using the speaker function on a puppycam just to talk to your dog unnecessarily disturbs their environment, confuses the logic of "my human is absent," and can cause further uncertainty and distress.
- Reserving the speaker function for verbal corrections can help reinforce the idea that "my human is always watching."
- A treat-dispensing camera can backfire by unintentionally rewarding the WRONG behavior.
- A laser-toy should NEVER EVER be used on a dog!!
If you happen to be researching cameras to aid as a tool in treating your dog's separation anxiety, you might want to also check out Malena DeMartini's website for some resources. She is a trainer who focuses almost exclusively on this particular problem, and her website is one of the best places I've found for help for separation anxiety!
I hope this post has been helpful! I'd love to hear about your experience with puppycams--leave a comment below or come join the discussion over in the Patchwork Dogs Facebook Group! And don't forget to subscribe to the newsletter to be notified when we post new content and to be eligible for raffles, promotions, and more!
Carrie Wiita is an actor, blogger, cheap-wine enthusiast, and dog-parent to Chance, a two-year-old rescue. On every first date, she whips out her phone to show off the Nest Cam live-stream of her dog sleeping in the kitchen, because really the gentleman should know what he's getting into. (Admittedly, there aren't many second dates.)