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Pet Rescue Saga: How I single-handedly saved hundreds of pets from being crushed

petrescuesaga

I rescued dozens, possibly hundreds, of pets from certain death the other night.

But before you call me a hero, or saint, you should know I only did it on Facebook, and only in a video game.

Pet Rescue Saga is the popular new puzzle game, downloaded more than 150 million times and playable on Facebook and through apps. It’s free, at first,  but then, like a drug dealer who has handed out samples to get new clients hooked, it starts charging you to play more, or play more effectively, or to reach greater highs.

The game comes from King.com, the makers of Candy Crush Saga, which is similar and reportedly equally addictive.

When invitations to play Pet Rescue Saga first started showing up on my Facebook page, I wrongly assumed — given most of my Facebook friends are die-hard, do-gooding animal lovers — that it was a game that somehow was related to, or benefited, animal welfare causes.

It’s not, and it doesn’t.

There might be some unintentional similarities to the real world of animal rescue, such as walls being put up in front of you, and things piling up faster than you can handle them. But “Pet Rescue Saga” isn’t about rescuing pets in the animal welfare sense of the word. It’s mainly about busting blocks, and then more blocks, and then more blocks, by clicking on them to ensure that the “adorable” little pets atop them don’t get squished.

Given video games have a reputation for catering to our basest instincts — chopping off heads, running people over in cars and the like –  I had hopes, especially when Facebook friends kept inviting me to play, that this one might actually be about a noble pursuit, or might even be educational.

No such luck. What it teaches us about pet rescue is that we can save animals by matching two or more blocks of the same color.

Still, I ended up spending an hour playing it on Facebook, which annoyingly notified me to “share” every time I passed some friend’s record, before it got to the point where further play would require an investment of money. (That — having to fork up some money — generally prevents and/or cures any addictions to which I might fall victim.)

There are hundreds of levels of the game, and the higher you go (or the more you spend) the more tools you get to “save pets” – like sizzling rockets, hammers and exploding bombs.

In playing it, one becomes so focused on the blocks that he forgets about the animals. The endangered animals really seem a well-contrived afterthought, as if the gamemakers thought putting pets in need of rescue atop the stacks of blocks — as opposed to pots of gold or damsels in distress – might give it some relevance, or, pet rescue being a popular cause, add to its popularity.

“Wait! Don’t forget about the animals! ” says a review of the game on gamezebo.com. “Some levels of Pet Rescue Saga have dogs, pigs, and pigeons trapped on stacks of blocks, or wedged in columns. When you successfully clear away blocks, said animals drop safely to the ground. However, since many levels of Pet Rescue Saga scroll vertically, the animals on tall columns are in constant danger of getting squished on the top of the screen. Nothing ruins your day like the anguished squeal of a piglet.”

Squishing aside, it’s nice to see a game that’s seemingly about rescuing and saving, as opposed to killing and maiming.

It would be much nicer to see a game that was really about rescuing and saving animals, or that really taught compassion, or at least tried to.

I’m not necessarily saying the makers and marketers of the game are trying to capitalize on tender-hearted pet lovers, or that they mislead people to think the game might have some legitimate connection to the actual world of animal rescue.

But, after playing the game, I did start receiving emails from the gamemaker — far too many emails — with subject lines like: “Pets in danger. Help them now!” Clicking on the link in the email took me directly to the game’s Facebook app.

I don’t keep up much anymore with the latest developments in video games. So I don’t know if phony altruism is the latest video game trend: Bust up the blocks and find a cure for cancer. Bust up the blocks to feed the starving children.

Maybe there are some truly altruistic video games out there. The Game Show Network came close to that last month when it introduced Pet Pals Slots, a limited-edition game on Facebook. It earmarked a portion of money made from gameplay in November — up to $30,000 — to go to Best Friends Animal Society, providing food, medical care and shelter for animals at the organization’s Utah sanctuary. In other words, while playing a mostly mindless game, those who played Pet Pals Slots, at least in a way, were saving pets.

Video games, with exceptions, are rarely educational, and I don’t really expect them to serve as our moral compass. (More often they seem aimed at sending that compass haywire.)

And of course they’re not obligated to share the wealth they make with any deserving causes they borrow their themes from.

But how cool would it be to see — in addition to less squishing — more of that?

“Oh, you are so good:” Virtual dog offers “unconditional love” to elderly

Meet GeriJoy. He’s a virtual dog. He’s a talking dog. He’s even described as “a compassionate” dog.

He was developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be an interactive companion for older people with dementia or memory problems, serving to provide what his makers call “continual stimulation.”

We’d be the first to recite all the wondrous things contact with a dog can do for the old, lonely, troubled and institutionalized and, using my own father as an example, we have, repeatedly.

But there’s something about GeriJoy, noble as the idea may be, that I find a little bit patronizing, a little bit insulting, and highly phony. His creation also seems an awfully circuitous and robotic route to take to provide a virtual experience with an animated creature when the real thing is so abundantly available.

Clearly, I’m cynical, or at least wary, when it comes to technology — and perhaps more. It was only yesterday, after all,  that I cruelly bashed soft and fuzzy stuffed animals.

gerijoy-300x170My point, then and now, is that, unlike with sugar, there is no substitute for the real thing when it comes to dogs.

Despite that, techno-wizards keep trying, intent, it seems, on trying to capture a no-shed, no-drool, no bark, no worries version of dog — be it stuffed, virtual, or mechanical — and then convince you that their inanimate, or animated, object will love you unconditionally forever.

The truth is, close as they might come — and cloning probably comes closest — they never will. Ha ha. Take that.

If GeriJoy, the virtual dog, is making some old person happy, even if it’s a delusional kind of happy, we’re all for it. If it’s being used as a substitute for human attention, we’re not. With all the growth in and demands on senior services and facilities for the elderly, there’s a tendency to look for quick and easy shortcuts, when the keys to doing job right are already obvious — caring staff, ample staff, staff with hearts.

And maybe some dogs — real dogs.

What I’d rather see is not a nursing home where dozens of residents are lined up in wheelchairs, stroking animated images on their hand held devices, but one that’s taking advantage of programs — or even creating some — in which dog ownership among residents is encouraged, and assistance with those dogs is provided; ones where dogs live under communal ownership, or short of that, therapy dogs visit regularly; one that’s investing in building a qualified and caring staff, as opposed to investing in devices that substitute for real human, or dog, contact.

Here’s how the GeriJoy website touts the product: “Have an older loved one who is lonely and suffers from dementia or geriatric depression? GeriJoy can help. We provide talking pets that are intelligent, compassionate, and available 24/7 to talk about anything, including photos and updates from family.”

The virtual dog can be displayed on a computer or other Internet-connected device. The virtual dog, the website claims, ”provides all the availability and unconditional love of an adorable pet, combined with the ability to talk with true intelligence and compassion … It’s as if it lives inside a picture frame, so you get the benefits of pet therapy without any smells, allergies, cleaning up, bites, or food and veterinary bills.”

The virtual dog can provide around the clock stimulation, his developers say, and, in the video snippet above, GeriJoy certainly sounds stimulating, or stimulated, almost orgasmically so. “Oh, you’re so good,” GeriJoy coos as an elderly man strokes the image on the screen.

We’re not sure if that’s what GeriJoy told the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s Healthy Aging Forum this month when he appeared before it. He’ll also be on exhibit at the AARP Health Innovation@50+ Tech Expo on May 31 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, according to the AARP blog.

To get GeriJoy, one must subscribe, and pay from $99 to $129 a month. The hardware costs up to $349 for the most sophisticated, Internet-connected version.

GeriJoy was co-founded by Victor Wang, a former Canadian Army officer who did research on human-machine interaction for NASA while at MIT. He says he was inspired to develop the virtual dog by his grandmother in Taiwan, who became depressed while she was living alone.

Wang says GeriJoy can even serve as a watchdog. In one case, a user’s human caregiver was being verbally abusive, and GeriJoy “contacted the user’s daughter to let her know about it.”

“Whatever your loved one wants to know, the companion can find out and report back,” the website says. “It can send and receive messages and photos between you and your loved one, also via the Internet. All this is done through the intuitive metaphor of a talking dog. Your loved one doesn’t even need to know what a computer is.”

We don’t care if the day comes when a virtual dog can cook dinner, push a wheelchair, administer medications or help you understand your health insurance.

A real dog is better — even with his shedding and drooling. Real dogs bring one into, and keep one in, the moment. Real dogs can help you keep a grip on reality, as opposed to pulling you into fantasy land. And real dogs offer a true form of love and validation — even if they can’t say, at least with words, “Oh, you are so good.”

Dog Wars: PETA unleashes app of its own

Fighting app with app, PETA released its own iPhone application yesterday that allows its users to monitor, mobilize and take action against those who exploit, abuse and mistreat animals.

The app was released in response to Google’s Android app “Dog Wars,” which PETA says promotes illegal dogfighting by allowing users to participate in “a digital version of the cruel blood ‘sport.’”

PETA’s new app, available for free, is aimed at “mobilizing anyone who values compassion over cruelty to speak up not only for dogs who are maimed and killed in staged fights but also for animals who are abused on factory farms, in laboratories, and in circuses.”

PETA sugggests subscribers start putting it to use by urging Google to pull “Dog Wars” from the Android Marketplace.

“Dog Wars promotes felony cruelty to animals, plain and simple,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “PETA’s new app allows iPhone users to employ consumer pressure to prevent dogs from being torn to shreds in dogfights and to nip other violent acts of abuse against animals in the bud.”

Users can participate in “action alerts” against specific products that cause animals to suffer as well as donate to PETA’s causes, all while earning points and badges. The more actions that users take, the higher their PETA rank will rise. Every alert is worth 10 points, and 10 additional points can be earned if the alert is shared on Facebook or Twitter.

“Dog Wars” disappears, comes back

Has “Dog Wars” bitten the dust?

ABC4 in Salt Lake City says so. So does Best Friends, and All Things Digital.

But those reports were apparently based solely  on the dogfighting game app temporarily disappearing from the Android Marketplace, Google’s online store.

Like a bad case of hemorrhoids, it’s back.

Unconfirmed reports say the app was temporarily removed from Google’s online market over concerns about copyright infringement — as opposed to the formidable and still growing opposition being voiced about it by dog lovers and animal welfare organizations.

Developed by Kage Games, the free app allows players to train and fight pit bulls, accumulating money and “cred.”

It has been roundly criticized by, among others, the Humane Society of the United States, PETA, numerous state and local humane societies, actress Alicia Silverstone and football quarterback Michael Vick, who served 21 months in prison for operating a dogfighting ring.

The creators of Dog Wars, in response to criticism, have added some explanation to the Android Marketplace page on which the app is offered.

“We’ve heard thoughts from many dog and animal lovers about our app and first we, as dog owners and dog lovers ourselves, would like to thank you for your thoughts and for the work many of you do on behalf of our canine friends. We DO NOT CONDONE violence towards animals or humans, and we are confident in humankind’s ability to distinguish between a rudimentary game and the consequences of real life.

“We are confident this game will be a net benefit to dogs as it has been in our operating agreement from the start of this project that a portion of the proceeds go to animal rescue organizations. Further, this is a satire about the ridiculousness of dogfighting and we believe in the power of a modern media tool to educate and raise awareness of the real horrors.

“There are hundreds of games on the Google Android market as well as any other popular game platform which, if acted out in real life, would be illegal. What makes the Google Android platform special is it gives the freedom and responsibility to the individual users to decide what to put on their phones as opposed to the phone carriers and app stores making value judgments on our behalf … Please remember that censorship is a very slippery slope.”

Objections mount to ‘Dog Wars’ app

Opposition is mounting to the new game app “Dog Wars,” and among those speaking out is Michael Vick.

According to the NBC blog, Digital Life, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, who served 21 months in jail for operating a dogfighting ring, released a statement, in conjuntion with the Humane Society of the United States, against the free app, now available as a free download through Google’s Android Market.

“I’ve come to learn the hard way that dogfighting is a dead-end street.  Now, I am on the right side of this issue, and I think it’s important to send the smart message to kids, and not glorify this form of animal cruelty, even in an Android app,” Vick is quoted as saying in the statement.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, added, “Android should drop ‘Dog Wars’ from its online market and join the national movement to save dogs from this violent practice. Because “Dog Wars” actually instructs players on how to condition a dog using methods that are standard in organized dogfighting, this game may be a virtual training ground for would-be dogfighters. Its timing and message are all wrong.” 

Meanhile, a petition calling for the game’s removal from the marketplace has been launched at Change.org, the same open petition website on which 150,000 people signed a petition demanding Apple drop a “gay cure” game from its App store. 

(Android is an open source operating system created by Google. While Google does not approve every app offered there, it does maintain a website where people can complain about objectionable content in games and apps. You can find it here.)

The Massachusetts SPCA also has spoken out against the dogfighting game app.

“Although illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, dog fighting remains a pervasive problem in America and is investigated inby the MSPCA’s Law Enforcement department. Dog Wars is a sickening tool that can be used to recruit potential dogfighters about how to train future victims, perpetuate breed specific stereotypes, and undermine the many years of hard work that animal protection agencies, including the MSPCA-Angell, have contributed to ensure strong penalties against dog fighters and spectators,” said Carter Luke, MSPCA-Angell president

“In the past, dog fighting instruction remained underground; however this ‘game’ brings this knowledge to the mainstream public through a tool attractive to young game players. Similar to the Dog Wars application, real life trainers work to ensure a mean temperament in kind animals from puppyhood, subjecting the young animals to ongoing cruelty and neglect, including living without shelter, enduring bouts of starvation, and sustaining beatings. To improve stamina and muscle mass, trainers also impose exhausting treadmill exercises on their dogs and force them to wear heavy chains around their necks. Identical to Dog Wars, the dogs are fed steroids and stimulants to increase their aggression. Dogs who refuse to fight, or consistently lose, may be shot, hanged, drowned, or electrocuted by their trainers. To further promote viciousness, trainers bait their dogs with intentionally wounded dogs, puppies, cats, and other small animals. 

“The training ground that Dog Wars provides has the potential to increase occurrences of animal cruelty as well as violence against humans. In a study performed by the MSPCA and Northeastern University we definitively discovered the correlation between those who abuse both animals and humans. Our research proved that those who abuse animals have the same psychological detachment as those who abuse humans and may harm animals after purposefully injuring people.”

Doggie Tweets? There’s a yap for that

bowlingualYour dog may soon be tweeting.

Japan’s Index Corp., a mobile content provider, plans to launch an iPhone adaptation of the “Bowlingual” dog emotion translator that it says will translate dog barks into English and tweet them out to the world.

The original Bowlingual device, first offered in 2002 by Takara Tomy, consists of a microphone that goes around the dog’s neck and a handheld receiver with LCD screen that gives a written readout of the emotion a dog’s bark is expressing: sad, frustrated, needy, happy, on guard and “self-expressive.” 

(That last one puzzles me. I wouldn’t consider it an emotion, and it seems any bark would be self expressive. Then again, maybe something is getting lost in translation.)

The Japanese company plans to launch the new iPhone app this summer, PCWorld reports.

Index is planning to charge $4.99 for the app, said Sonoko Tatsuno, a spokeswoman for the company in Tokyo — considerably cheaper than the $229 stand-alone version. A Japanese version of the new app will come out first, followed by an English version.

In addition to translating a dog’s bark, the software can capture a picture of the dog, using the iPhone’s built-in camera. The resulting picture can then be combined with the “translation” and sent directly from the iPhone to Twitter.

The original product proved to be a hit in Japan selling around 300,000 units, It was also put on sale in the U.S. and South Korea.

Dachshund drowning? There’s an App for that

Nathan App was sentenced in Montgomery County Court in Pennsylvania to five years of probation and 60 hours of community service after trying to drown a woman’s dachshund in a backyard swimming pool.

Under a plea agreement, App, 20, of Douglass Township, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of cruelty to animals.

“His conduct was disgusting. It was a small, helpless dog. He was basically torturing the dog by repeatedly dunking the dog in water and dragging it by its leash in the water,” Assistant District Attorney Abby Silverman said of the July incident.

Judge William R. Carpenter, who accepted a plea agreement in the case, also ordered App to undergo a psychological evaluation, and prohibited App from owning any animals, according to an article in the Delaware County Daily Times.

App apparently has a history with the dog’s owner — a previous court order had prohibited him from having any contact with her. Apparently, her dog was another matter.

The dog’s owner, who rushed the dog to a veterinarian for treatment after the incident, told police she was alerted to the attempted drowning by her neighbors who had witnessed the cruelty.

Two neighbors reported they observed App pull the dog by a leash into the pool area and then throw the dog into the water, according to the arrest affidavit. One witness claimed App tossed the dog into the air and watched the dog land in the pool, then repeatedly dunked the dog under the water.

Neighbors yelled at App and he pulled the dog out of the water, police said.

The dachshund survived.

Let your fingers do the dogwalking

eukanuba-iphoneFinally, a good reason to get an iPhone.

Eukanuba is offering an iPhone application that gives dog owners the location of the nearest dog parks. By simply tapping the “Locate Me” feature, users can get information about the five nearest dog parks — complete with map and driving directions.

The application will work on all iPhone and iPod Touch models, according to a company press release.

The Eukanuba OFF LEASH iPhone application can be downloaded for free at www.Eukanuba.com.  Users are encouraged to share their favorite dog parks so that they can be added to the evolving park database. 

Users of the application can also access Eukanuba TV 24-hours a day and see original dog-related content, including “Planet Puppy,” “Champions and Heroes,” “Eukanuba Legacy” and more.

There’s an app for that?

If you’ve got an iPhone, you can now download an application that allows you to call up the image of a virtual puppy, scratch his belly until his leg shakes, play tug of war with him, or pet him until he licks the screen.

Joseph Dolan, a recent graduate of Texas State Technical College, created the interactive program — Pocket Puppy Raiser — for Apple Inc., and a portion of proceeds from its sale will go to Guide Dogs of Texas, which raises and trains guide dogs to visually impaired Texans.

The application costs $2.99 per download and proceeds will be split among the iPhone App Store, Dolan and Guide Dogs of Texas, according to an article from the San Antonio Business Journal.

Dolan’s mother works for Guide Dogs of Texas as a puppy raising program manager. Dolan says he plans to upgrade the Pocket Puppy Raiser to reflect the different tasks guide dogs perform as they grow older.

To download the app, go to iTunes and search “Pocket Puppy Raiser.”