Smartphone App Helps Lost Dogs Get Home

VCA veterinary hospitals will promote Finding Rover, a free service already used in more than 200 animal shelters nationwide.

The success stories—more than 800 of them—put a smile on John Polimeno’s face.

The founder and CEO of Finding Rover talks about the San Diego pet owner whose dog went missing. Having failed during a search of the local animal shelter, the owner downloaded the Finding Rover app onto her smartphone and uploaded a photo of her pet.

The next day, an animal control officer picked up a stray dog and took its photo using Finding Rover. Within seconds, thanks to facial recognition software, a match was confirmed and the dog was soon back home.

Frantic pet owners might search a shelter once, but “What are the odds of them going back to that shelter every day?” Polimeno said.

The former construction company owner decided three years ago that there had to be a better way of reuniting lost dogs with their owners, particularly those animals lacking an identifying microchip or collar. Sitting in a Northern California coffee shop, he saw a missing-pet poster and thought of the time his dog was lost and how his kids cried as the family drove all over looking for the animal.

Say ‘Cheese’

How do you get a dog to look directly into a camera lens?

Finding Rover inventor John Polimeno found that the cry of a whining puppy works best.

“We tried hundreds of sounds,” he said. “We tested in dog parks.”

For best results, the app asks users to fill the frame with an animal’s face and then snap the photo. If the subject is looking away, press the dog’s head icon next to the shutter button and immediately a one-second cry is heard and the animal should turn his head.

“It’s something about the young, whiny sound that affects the animals,” Polimeno said.

He discovered that a cat cry got a dog’s attention even better, “but I couldn’t bring myself to do that.”

“This crazy idea came into my head,” Polimeno recalled. “I looked at my wife and said, ‘If they can identify people using facial recognition, maybe they can identify pets.’ She looked at me and said, ‘This is what you should do with the rest of your life.’”

Working with scientists at the University of Utah Software Development Center and later with app programmers, Polimeno invented Finding Rover and its soon-to-be-released feline version, Finding Kitty.

The venture wasn’t cheap, and it’s not a moneymaker for Polimeno, though he foresees a day when the apps display small advertisements for, say, pet food—revenue that would be shared with shelters.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars on this technology,” Polimeno said of himself and a small number of backers who “believed in what we are doing.”

Also supporting the enterprise are more than 200 animal shelters nationwide that use Finding Rover to snap a dog’s photo upon intake and the VCA Animal Hospitals chain, which is providing pet health information within the app and has agreed to hang promotional posters in the company’s 679 clinics.

“It’s not a monetary partnership, it’s a dedication to what we’re trying to do for pet owners,” said Bob Antin, CEO of Los Angeles-based VCA Inc.

Millions of dogs and cats carry identifying microchips, but the tiny implants aren’t foolproof or placed in every animal.

“We’ve tried for years and years and years to chip, and people are hesitant for religious reasons, for financial reasons to chip dogs,” Antin said. “And you go into shelters and some have [microchip scanners] and some don’t. For Finding Rover, it’s as easy as taking a picture.”

To date, more than 160,000 dogs populate the Finding Rover database, a number that grows by 400 to 500 a day as shelters and pet owners upload photos.

SpcaLA, an animal welfare organization that finds homes for more than 3,000 pets a year, sees the app as a blessing, not only because shelters can find a lost animal’s owner faster but also because some pets never have to make an intermediate stop at a rescue, freeing up time and money.

Through so-called “crowdfinding,” app users can be notified when a pet is lost or found in their area. Someone who spots a stray can take a photo using Finding Rover, circle the animal’s eyes and nose to assist the computer program, and instantly post the discovery. At the same time, a missing animal’s owner can issue an electronic plea for help, and if one photo matches another, the animal is soon home.

“If facial recognition technology can work for the FBI, why not our lost pets?” said spcaLA’s president, Madeline Bernstein. “SpcaLA has always been on the forefront of new technologies for animal welfare. This venture strives to reunite lost pets using the most powerful tools we have—advanced technology and human compassion.”

The technology has a high degree of accuracy—98 percent of dogs and 99 percent of cats may be photographically matched, Polimeno said. Even purebred animals, which to the untrained eye may appear identical, possess unique, distinguishing facial features.

“The beauty of the technology is it has no idea it’s an animal, it has no idea it’s a black Lab, a yellow Lab or a poodle,” Polimeno said. “We take 128 spots around the face and we use texture, color, shading, geometry.

“It’s counterintuitive, but the more similar a face is the easier it is to identify.”

The cat app, which is expected to operate inside Finding Rover, could do wonders for assisting felines, Bernstein said.

“Cats are on the street, there are community cats in some neighborhoods, there are feral cat colonies in some neighborhoods,” she said. “Imagine the ability to use technology to manage those collections and those populations intelligently.”

Polimeno looks to expand Finding Rover beyond the United States.

“We’re now in Australia [and] we’re introducing legislation there to make us mandatory,” he said. “We’re on our way to the U.K. early next year to introduce it. We’re just launching it in Canada.”

Polimeno and his financial backers may never see their millions of dollars again, but he said that’s not important.

“There’s no ulterior motive other than, ‘Let’s all get together, let’s use this technology, and let’s save these pets.’ That’s all there is to it.”

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