In the last three months I had the chance to play with a very expensive dog toy. The CleverPet is a connected pet toy that dispenses treats as your pet becomes used to playing a Simple Simon-style game using a touchpad and lights. The idea is compelling, especially for those with smart, bored dogs who otherwise turn to destroying shoes or homes when their owner is away.
At $300 the CleverPet is expensive, but people spend a ton of money on their dogs already, so I’m not sure the price tag will stop people intent on giving it a chance. But there are a few drawbacks. The biggest ones are; the toy is loud and not every dog is going to manage to figure it out. You can currently buy a refurbished device for $249.
I’m a bit concerned because in the time I’ve had mine, the company has run out of stock on new devices and has slowed down its posting on social media. I will say that the device does work without Wi-Fi so if the company goes out of business you still have the basic functionality. However, you lose the ability to download new games and progress through the “getting comfortable” phase.
The CleverPet is a good-sized piece of equipment, with a dome and a lip that extends out with three light pads on it. It measures 16 x 15 inches around and is 7 inches tall. It boasts a non-stick base and weighs 11 pounds. My 18-pound dog didn’t have any luck moving it or flipping it, nor did a mildly interested red heeler mix that weights about 55 pounds.
The device connects to your Wi-Fi network so you can track your dog’s progress and food consumption using an app on your phone. I rarely had to turn to the app, so you can set it and forget it if you’d like. The hub holds about 2.5 pounds of dry kibble or treats. I used a combination of kibble and tiny freeze-dried liver treats that my dog loves. The website suggests that you could also use Cheerios or cut up carrots (cut smaller than a dime) in place of kibble if you choose. I wished I could use hot dog, but thought that would get messy.
You fill the device with food by removing the top dome and taking out a container that spins around inside to dispense the food. Depending on the food involved, the container and feeder can get jammed up, but a quick spin and making sure there’s no food stuck in the works, takes only a moment to fix. The food is dispensed in to a shallow metal-lined tray in the lip of the device that slides in and out. A door over the tray opens to reveal food, or the empty tray. At some point in time during play, the door will cover the bowl and the whole contraption slides back in to refill the kibble.
Setting up the device involves adding food, plugging it in and then connecting it to your Wi-Fi network using the app. The app is available for Android and iOS devices, and set up was a breeze. Once the CleverPet is set up, it’s time to train your dog.
Here’s where things get a little bit more fun, and I recommend getting a camera set up to capture your dog’s reactions. The app will explain what’s going on, but essentially the idea is to get your dog accustomed to the noise associated with the device and then, take food from it. The CleverPet’s motor is loud! There are two sounds to be aware of. The first is the motor and the second is the rumble of kibble in the spinning container. Both are noises that can be heard throughout our two-story house with the CleverPet downstairs in the kitchen.
Since this is designed to be a toy that plays with your pooch when you’re not at home, this may not be a deal breaker. However, in my testing, it was certainly irritating. There is an option to set a schedule in the phone’s app so one could set it to run only when folks aren’t home, but I’d almost prefer geo-location that could flip it on when I leave the house.
But back to my dog. She was totally fine with the noise after one or two rumbles and the realization that rumbles meant food. She had no problem grabbing her treats from the bowl. I brought in a second dog, a red heeler mix named Lax who also warmed up to the device quickly. I had filled it with a mix of kibble and freeze dried liver treats that my pup loves in the hopes of not overfeeding her, but trying to make the toy exciting.
However, after your pup is comfortable with the toy, the CleverPet raises the stakes. It starts trying to entice your dog to nose or paw at the lighted pads on the base of the machine. It does this by randomly rolling the container of food and intermittently dispensing it to keep the dog engaged. But in many cases the dog will hear the rumble associated with dispensing food, yet the cover over the food bowl won’t open. The idea is that the dog knows there is food under there and can’t get to it until it paws at the right place.
This was the point when my dog gave up. And by give up, I meant she basically stopped paying attention to the device at all. Even when the door opened and there was accessible food, she didn’t even run over to try to eat it. The makers of the CleverPet caution that your dog has to be food motivated to enjoy the toy, and I agree. I tried to put the highest value treats that worked within the dispenser (treats should be smaller than a dime and hard), but my dog just gave up.
I also wonder if I would have had better luck leaving my dog alone to figure this out rather than hanging around the video her and point to the light pads to try to get her paws on there. CleverPet says you should let the dog take the lead so the animal doesn’t think that you’re going to help it and associated success with you being there. That’s good advice I should have focused on more.
To fix this, I put the device away for two months and pulled it out again to see if my dog would get a bit more out of it. This time I left her alone. She was a bit more engaged this time around, and managed to accidentally paw at the lights to get a reward. However, she didn’t seem to make the connection between the pawing and reward and eventually just ran over to the machine every time she heard it rumble and open, since it still kept dispensing treats on occasion to keep her engaged.
The other puppy, Lax, was not super food motivated and gave up long before my dog did. I didn’t have him around at the two month mark, so not sure how he would react. So my advice to you before buying this product is to really honestly assess your dog’s interest in food and put really yummy hard treats in there. And then back off to let your dog figure it out.