Have you ever wanted to strengthen your bond with your dog, but lack the time and resources necessary?
In this episode of Pet Lover Geek, Lorien dives into the future of human and canine relations with Ceo and Founder of Companion, John Honchariw. Together they discuss how John's company plans to do this with the use of machine learning and robotic assistance.
If you want to learn more about Companion check the Show Notes below!
00:01 Lorien Clemens
Hey Pet Lovers! Welcome to Pet Lover Geek powered by PetHub, I'm Lorien Clemons and today we are exploring a super innovative way to train your pup. Oh it's so exciting, I'm really thrilled about having this interview with our guest that's coming up because it's all about keeping up with training your fur baby and you know that can be tough. I've got a puppy myself now, she's seven and a half months, and you know two steps forward, one step back, or one paw back and I know that we all think that we've got it down. We got the training down, but then all of a sudden they don't. So keeping up with training your fur baby can be tough and I know that we all know that, but a new solution from our friends over at a company called Companion is tackling this issue and today's guest is John Honchariw and he is the founder and CEO of a new tech toy for Fido. It's not really a toy, but it's like a toy too. It's really cool. I'm super excited to tell you guys all about it, so stick around just through this very short break and we'll be right back to interview John and learn more about companion.
01:27 Lorien Clemens
Welcome to Pet Lover Geek John, super happy to have you on the show.
01:31 John Honchariw
I'm glad to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
01:33 Lorien Clemens
So I would love it if you could kind of give us a little bit of the history that led to Companion. I think it's fascinating.
01:40 John Honchariw
Cool the origination story. Okay, so five or six years ago I had this amazing opportunity to work with this fantastic group of tech folks at Google Robotics. Google acquired like all these kind of leading companies in robotics a number years ago and I had this really cool opportunity to work with a number of them, and in doing that work, we're basically looking at like, what are all the things in robotics and automation that we can build to help solve problems we care about, and in that work, one realization that dropped out of it was, oh my God like, all of these sensors, all these computers now, like all over the world are gonna help us understand much more deeply, all of the animals around us, and that is inescapable. There's no way this doesn't happen over the next 10-20 years. One, like all animals, including ourselves, like primarily communicate through movement and postures. So how we hold ourselves, how we walk, how we gesture. The dog sitting by the door needs to go outside. How's the dog wagging his tail? The dogs back. There's all these little, subtle, psychological and physiological signals of health and wellness and also conscious communication in all these little movements. In fact two, is we now have all of these sensors in our hands with our phones and our cars and our homes all over the world, that can much more precisely pick up on all of this movement posture and the nice thing with machines is they have perfect memory. They have infinite patience. So like there's no way that they don't start seeing these patterns of movements over time. Therefore help us much more deeply understand all the animals around us. So that was the realization, and that's generally what we are really excited about Companion, is essentially creating or sharing more understanding in between ourselves and the animals we love.
03:07 Lorien Clemens
I love it. I gotta say that like as I'm listening to you I'm like, and this is how the beginning of how the machines take over the world.
03:14 John Honchariw
(Laughter) As with all technologies. There's a dark side, and there's a really good side. Well there's a whole like fascinating philosophical conversation there, but two things, like I'll start off with like why are we starting with dog training with this new service? And then two, I'll talk a little bit about where does automation take us into your point of the philosophical side. If you're starting off with this realization that like, oh my God the next 10-20 years is going to massively change what we can understand about the animals around us. So the next question is like, okay, how can I accelerate that feature? How can we get there even faster? And it became very clear very quickly like, oh my God of course you start with the animal that people spend the most money on and the most time on. Like just from a pure business standpoint, it's also an animal I love deeply, so like that's really fun way to start with dogs. Okay cool, now do something that everybody needs, but that isn't nearly as accessible because of expense, or nearly as well done as it potentially could be. Training, everybody needs it, like not only to be at the beginning of your relationship with your dog, but also like throughout your dog's life, like there's tremendous benefits to that training, like both the human animal bond, like ongoing engagement with the dog, like lower anxiety. There's so much benefit, and people generally in the US, we don't have an opportunity to know what good looks like. If you watch a service dog or that type of training, it is very different than what consumers are used to. Like okay, there's a really interesting opportunity here. And three is you get to choose something that leverages this inherent kind of advantage, like it's unfair advantage that machines have. Like I said, they're much more precise. They have perfect memories, and they have infinite patients, like these are all the areas that even the most well meaning of us struggle with, right? Like we struggled to be perfectly patient. We struggled to be perfectly consistent. Like our memories ah, my memory is not so good. So all of these things culminate in this realization that training is a fantastic use of this type of technology because I mean machine like, while like a human, might be like okay, 100 repetitions to say maybe 200 repetitions of sit in the first couple weeks. But one of those things like, "ah I'm kind of bored." A machine would think nothing of 10,000 repetitions over the first 3-6-9 months. Making sure that overtime your dog gets to really hone that skill and kind of through different noises, like in different positions, like just to the exact right posture you're looking for and also practice it over time, right? Like a machine. We all have tremendously busy lives. With our kids, with their jobs, with everything going on in the world. We aren't always able to dedicate the amount of time that your dog really deserves on the training side, especially on an ongoing basis. So this seemed like a really great place to start leveraging a device, kind of this first of kind device within a service that is the first of its kind that can really interact with your dog in real time in a fun way where your dog wants to engage.
05:50 Lorien Clemens
I'm just listening and thinking, you know, I mentioned I have a 7 and a half month old puppy and...
05:55 John Honchariw
Congratulations, I didn't know that actually.
05:57 Lorien Clemens
Thank you, well actually yeah, I think -- I know you and I chatted months ago back, but I don't think we'd actually gotten her yet, so that tells you how long ago we chatted.
06:03 John Honchariw
What's your dog's name.
06:04 Lorien Clemens
Her name is Hedy. Actually she's named after Hedy Lamarr, and so we call her Hedy Pawmar.
06:10 John Honchariw
(Laughter) That's such a good name -- rings a bell actually, I might have known that.
06:15 Lorien Clemens
Yeah, I think we were talking about getting her when we last talked, so and I know that, you know, I also have a toddler. So for us it's like you know even though the first dogs that we had in our married life were like impeccably trained, it was 'cause they were our kids. They were our soul -- we really did pay a lot of time and attention to them. Yeah, now... Like poor Hedy I mean she's actually extremely well behaved for all the situations she had to deal with, but yeah, it is. It's true, I don't take nearly as much time to train her as I did my previous dogs, and probably not nearly as much time. You know, they didn't get as much time as it really could have and should have gotten, so I love it. So I'd love it if you can kind of breakdown like, what is companion? What is it that your company is offering?
07:01 John Honchariw
Cool. So companion, there's the company side, which is really around helping us better understand the animals around us. There's also the product. At the end of the day like our product is a really well trained dog, and a phenomenal relationship with a being you care deeply about, and how we do that -- we give you some really interesting tools to achieve that, and that's what the companion service is, but at the end of the day that's what we really want. We really want you to have a phenomenal bond with your dog, have a really easygoing relationship, to have both you guys feel lower anxiety 'cause you'll have phenomenal communication. And so we help you get there by giving you access to three things you've never had before. Which is one this beautiful device that your dog seems to love every time it turns on and your dog comes running from across the house to go play with it, and you watch in amazement as you realize your dog is doing all these positions and it's actually controlling the device. It's learned that it's controlling the device which is super cool. Two, this amazing Companion coach, like this person who is unbelievable for a couple of reasons like one, their -- it's what I call service "dogable" coach like these are literally folks who have trained service dogs before, like I just stand in awe of like their level of thought behind what they do and their professional accreditations, and they also get to just focus with you on the fun stuff. So like, while the machine -- while the device is doing all the heavy lifting with practicing with your dog during the week -- they see all the videos of that. They know exactly how your dogs doing, but they just get to focus with you on kind of the higher level questions. So just the fun stuff, not the repetition, and then three, we have this amazing app that you get to not only view your dogs progress and kind of fun videos we send -- we only send you the fun stuff because it's you know, it's an AI technology, we need to pick out the really cool stuff. And then it's also a vehicle for you to communicate through the app with your Companion coach, like so it's how you receive your coaches reports, it's how you communicate back and forth to your coach if you have any questions -- like could be from the very advanced to the very mundane.
08:39 Lorien Clemens
When is it available by the way?
08:41 John Honchariw
Well, so you can sign up as of a couple months ago and the first units are actually going out in about three or four weeks now.
08:46 Lorien Clemens
Woah that's exciting!
08:47 John Honchariw
Yeah we are super excited. Please be patient with us. We're getting them out as soon as we can. We want to make sure like we're airing on the side of making sure that you and your dog have a phenomenal time, like we have every interest in seeing and making sure that all of the first customers have an amazing experience. We're going to start scaling up slowly, you know, go a little bit more, a little bit more, a little more -- is everyone still have an amazing time? Okay great! Production is actually going on right now for this next wave, and then we'll be shipping those out directly in about a month.
09:14 Lorien Clemens
That's exciting. So there's a couple things to unpack about everything you said that I want to make sure that I fully understand and Grok what you're talking about, so our readers do -- our listeners do as well so, basically the machine is training your dog rather than that human being with the clicker, you know, and the treat bag kind of thing. It's the machine that's doing all this stuff, so I think what I might be worried about is like, well how do I know that they're gonna like pay attention to me? They're used to doing the machine interaction like what about the human interaction? Is any of that lost? Or what does that mean in terms of like that -- you mentioned the human animal bond. So what does this machine, doing the training, due to that bond?
09:53 John Honchariw
Well we are a supplement to it, we are in no way a replacement, and no way can achieve any of this without your active participation. So think of us, like at our best, we're doing like 98-99% of the heavy lifting for you. In the same way that you might let your dog go play with a professional trainer for a couple days and the professional trainers doing a ton of practice with them, and then that professional trainer comes back to your house or you go over there and they're like, okay, "your dogs done hundred sits or a thousands sits. Like now we're going to teach you how to do that sit." And they're really orienting maybe their teaching at you, the human, but they're actually training two animals at once, 'cause when they have you do a couple of sits in front of them as a professional trainer like they're not only teaching you how to practice with your dog, they're also teaching your dog. They always -- almost always include your dog in that situation too, 'cause they want to see that if the professional trainer asked for the sit your dog knows to go sit and get a treat, but also that for the dog, oh, if my owner says sit I get a treat too if I sit. It's the same way with the device. So I'm not being as articulate as I'd like to be, but we call it generalization. Which is your dog learns, and whether it's from the device or professional trainer, or from someone else that if they perform that behavior with them n that situation, they can also be rewarded. If they do that behavior with you, and so your coach and the curriculum kind of smartly involves you along the way. I mean it can be just fun too like, we want you to be actively involved. We love the parents who want to invest in this, and we actually think that's when it works the best. We're not going to work in a vacuum. We want to work with really involved, really invested pet parent who view us as a way to supercharge that relationship right. Where they get a 98% head start on a lot of these behaviors. So let's give you technical example like, let's say when your dogs ready to graduate sit 302 as a kind of example curriculum, we'll tell you -- like you get a fun video, probably on your phone on the way home from work saying like, by the way your dog just passed graduation criteria today, did an amazing job and I also saw they were working on these one or two other things which we've been working on for the last couple of weeks. Awesome, by the way, now that your dogs ready to graduate, why don't you take a couple of treats out to your local dog park tonight and like here's what we're going to practice -- here is a short video of what to practice with your dog, and that could be the graduation step. As all training is, it's not one and done. Training is like a muscle that you kind of train up to a level, and you got to keep it there. You got to keep practicing. Over time your dog is switching back and forth between the device, you, the device, you, the device, your partner, you, and learning that same word in different contexts, and from different folks, from devices, trainers, whatever, means the same thing.
12:15 Lorien Clemens
You mention the curriculum. So talk me through like how that all works. I get this device and I know that our listeners are not able to see, but I'm assuming it's that device that's back behind you.
12:23 John Honchariw
12:24 Lorien Clemens
It looks a little bit like a... little bit like a big old printer or something like that.
12:30 John Honchariw
(Laughter) There's a bunch of people at Frog Design who are cringing right now.
12:34 Lorien Clemens
I must say to your designers, it's a little bit blurry because of the the zoom camera that we're using right now, but this device?
12:42 John Honchariw
12:43 Lorien Clemens
How does it work? Do I just plug it in in the morning before I leave and turn it on? I mean how does it work?
12:46 John Honchariw
Yes, if you're very visual like me there's some fun videos on our website. A quick plug at, joincompanion.com -- just like it sounds. There's a number of videos that walk through exactly how the device works. Our aim is to make it as simple as that. Our aim is to make it as simple as you plug it in. Your coach will help you get it set up on Wi-Fi, and then you can immediately begin working with your coach and your dog and the device. The first thing we do is just make sure your dogs enjoying the interaction with the device and kind of giving your dog a slow, kind of really gentle exposure to the device. The training -- make sure everything is looking great. Make sure your dog doesn't have any noise phobias or isn't reacting in any odd way, and then once we've established that your dogs really comfortable with the device then we'll move on into training kind of all the different behaviors, and so you're ready to go very quickly and then your dog can be working on one thing with the device you could be working on another thing with the coach in the coaching sessions as they bring you along as well without your dogs doing. I think what you're asking is like how does the device actually work? And like I said there's a great --like how does this device actually trained a dog? And there's a great how it works video online, but in short, like what we do, like the the simplest way to look at it is, the first thing we do is we train your dog to come over. In other words we just dispense treats and have fun with the dog to show that great things happen around the device when the device is on so your dog wants to come hang out. Then we look for all the behaviors that you want to train, whether it's sit, down, like look at the device, come towards the device recall, All these natural behaviors that are actually things we want to train and so whenever we see one of those behaviors that we want to train. We capture the behavior, so we mark it, with like you know, a clicker or yes, and then reward the dog, and then once your dog understands and then once the dog makes the link between that behavior and the reward, you see explosion of those behaviors. You can see like 20 sits in you know, 10-15 minutes, like just an absolute explosion of them. And then once it's very clear to us that your dogs made that connection. Then we introduced the stimulus control. So then we say like, okay, now we're only going to reward if you -- the device emits a sit sound, in your voice or another voice, before you sit, then you get a reward dog. So it's very, very similar to normal training, I mean without luring and we do kind of combination of other things like shaping behavior too. If your dogs offering approximation, so it's actually quite similar to human training, but I'd say it's almost -- it's like an narrow discipline. It's very narrow discipline form of it, which is, we're only using audio, which we actually think is the phenomenal way to train. You will see a lot of professionals try to avoid using hand gestures, simply because -- for variety reasons, but one of the primary ones being a dog can't see you're hand gesture if they're around the corner.
15:19 Lorien Clemens
15:20 John Honchariw
Or they're behind the tree, right? And so we use audio only. We don't lure and we capture, then we can shape if we need to, and then we just keep practicing when your dog wants to practice throughout the day.
15:29 Lorien Clemens
And all this is built on a framework of AI right?
15:32 John Honchariw
Yes, yeah, yeah. So AI is a very -- it's word that means a lot these days.
15:36 Lorien Clemens
Well it's a buzzwordy kind of thing so I think starting to lose some of its power 'cause we are like, "ah, whatever, machine learning, lalala. So talk about it. What does that mean though?
15:46 John Honchariw
Yeah, so the AI in our system is essentially we can see your dog with a camera and then the AI quote, unquote machine learning like tells the machine, like it looks at the image of what your dogs doing and it relays like, what does that actually mean? Is your dog in a sit posture, is your dog in a down posture? How far is your dog away? And then we can track all those meta behaviors, and is your dog agitated? Is your dog moving around in kind of repetitive patterns, or like, are there any other meta level behaviors that we think are important that we should look at? That's the AI part, is translating, that's what hasn't really been possible to do in peoples homes. Normally it's only really possible to do in big server cluster, kind of in the cloud, quote, unquote, or elsewhere. But now, because of these low cost GPU's -- these low cost kind of AI chip, let's call it, that allows you to do this work like in a device in your home. Now that device can quote, unquote see your dog. So not just take an image of your dog, but really understanding in that image is your dog sitting, going down? Is your dog approximating to sit? Is your dog moving away from the camera. All of these things that a trainer needs to know.
16:46 Lorien Clemens
So is it all localized there on the actual machine?
16:48 John Honchariw
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
16:49 Lorien Clemens
So it's like a local server right there in your house.
16:51 John Honchariw
It's a bigger computer. It's kind of like a more powerful computer. It's not a server in the sense that it's not serving kind of other computers needs. However, you are right in the sense that it is a more powerful computer inside of this device that does all of the important calculations right there in your living room, right there in your kitchen, or right there in your play room. Or wherever you and your dog hang out, and it's really important, we think it's tremendously important to be really consistent, but also really fast, so with all training you want to be really quick on the follow up right? Really quick with that yes or really quick with the clicker. We think, we're here, we're taking advantage of machines inherent advantage, right? Like this machine is operating on the level like 10-20-30 frames a second, so it's really, really fast and what that means is we have the potential of becoming really superhuman power trainers in terms of being able to shape behaviors. We can catch little ones overtime, like little increments, or just to capture like little small behaviors or really fast behaviors, and also it's been shown in all the research that the lower the latency, so the lower amount of time in between the behavior and the reward, the faster your dog will make the link between those two things. So the faster your dog learns.
18:03 Lorien Clemens
So I gotta ask, I have time for two more quick questions, so the first one, and I'm sure is on everybody's mind. How much does this cost?
18:12 John Honchariw
Cool. We haven't announced it yet publicly, but if you sign up you might be one of the groups that's invited to purchase one early. It's going to be a premium service, for sure. So think of it like -- like many tech products, like the way we can get it out the fastest to the most people, counterintuitively, is actually selling products to wealthy people, or folks with means and then we can use that wealth to help us subsidized the sending of these devices to shelters for our nonprofit work in addition to developing even lower cost services for the lower-middle class. So it's going to be expensive, but we actually think it's a screaming deal for what you're getting in terms of -- it's like a dog walk a week, in terms of what wealthy people are used to paying for. For all the services that you are used to maybe with your dog if you're in that category of people like, you might be paying a dog walker. You might be going to dog day boarding. You might be using a trainer or somewhat frequently, like it's compared very well to that, in terms of like think of it like maybe a dog walk or two walks a week.
19:08 Lorien Clemens
Yeah, and I know that we had a reactive pup who's no longer with us, but we -- I don't know -- we shelled out $300 every week just to take her to get her to personal training for six weeks and it was a lot, but it was worth it at the end of the day, 'cause it kept her from ripping everybody's face off.
19:27 John Honchariw
(Laughter) Well when you put it like that.
19:29 Lorien Clemens
Well you know, it was either that or euthanizing which was not okay with us, so I do understand that yes it's a premium product, but at the same time it's really worth it. So the other question that I have, now you kind of alluded to this already, but I want to make sure that everybody understands, like how did they get one? How do they get involved?
19:45 John Honchariw
Oh cool, yeah. So if you go to www.joincompanion.com. So in the top of the website kind of walks you through a little bit of how the device works, and at the bottom there's a place where you can sign up to be on the waitlist for the product, like we have far more orders than we have units for in the near term, but if you put your email address, and there's no monetary commitment, there's no deposit or anything like that, but if you put your name in, we'll get you on the list. Our team will reach out and evaluate. Will give you some form of estimate as to when we might be able to ship your device. It's going to be a little while, like I want to set expectations low that we're seeing great demand, which is fantastic, and we want to just keep messaging that we're going to be trying to do right by folks by really focusing on quality and making sure we're scaling that quality appropriately. So we're not just going to send out everything because we're excited to grow really quickly. We want to do it really right. We think this is that super important part of a pet parents in a dogs life that we want to do it really well, and then in the near term, we've shown this device is really helpful to a number of dogs, I think you'll see a lot of messaging from us in the next like a couple quarters. So the next 3-6-9 months really on the positive impact with animals that might be having a rougher time of it with the transition into COVID. There's many things we've seen really cool results for with the device, but one of the most like really heartwarming ones or kind of really unexpected ones, is how the device can help with separation anxiety, how the device can help with anxiety conditions generally. To be honest, we actually don't quite understand why it works well, but we have seen, on the low end, we're doing larger large scale experiments right now with a couple of leading partners who are really excited about that. I can't name them now, but we're doing larger scale studies of this, but we might -- my personal hypothesis is there's something about the structure that the training, that the device gives the animal, especially as it might be going through a relatively anxiety filled period. I mean it's filling the time with what we think might be one of the most interesting forms of engagement generally which is training, but especially around like their pet parent leaving to go to work now in COVID after you know, being home for last year with their owner, it seems to be a pretty powerful use case, so you probably see us talking about that quite a bit. So for folks who either have a desire for more engagement for their animal especially transitioning back, and you'll probably see a little bit more on kind of clinical separation anxiety, or just kind of anxiety related problems with animals.
21:50 Lorien Clemens
That's exciting stuff. I actually think we should probably check back with you in six months. Six to nine months and see how it's going, for sure. Well, unfortunately, that is all the time we have. Thank you so much for coming on the show John. Really impressive what you guys are doing and I'm super interested to see how it turns out. So I look forward to seeing what happens next with Companion.
22:07 John Honchariw
Me too. Yeah cool, thanks so much for having us on.
22:10 Lorien Clemens
Absolutely, now if any of you are listening and you're interested in learning more, remember that to join companion you need to go to www.joincompanion.com and there's a place there that you can sign up to get more information. So thank you so much for listening. This has been Pet Lover Geek, powered by PetHub. I'm Lorien Clemens, and until next time, give those fur babies a kiss for me.