Dog Lovers Decide if Bark Worth the Bite
Mar 22, 4:16 pm ET
By Paul Simao
ATLANTA (Reuters) - If you're wondering why your pooch howls at the moon, growls at the mailman or barks uncontrollably at squirrels, the answer may be only a click away.
A Japanese toy maker claims to have developed a gadget that translates dog barks into human language and plans to begin selling the product -- under the name Bowlingual -- in U.S. pet stores, gift shops and retail outlets this summer.
Tokyo-based Takara Co. Ltd. (7969.T) says about 300,000 of the dog translator devices have been sold since its launch in Japan late last year. It is forecasting far bigger sales once an English-language version comes to America in August.
The United States is home to about 67 million dogs, more than six times the number in Japan.
"We know that the Americans love their dogs so much, so we don't think they will mind spending $120 on this product," Masahiko Kajita, a Takara marketing manager, said during an interview at a recent pet products convention in Atlanta.
"YOU'RE TICKING ME OFF"
Cited as one of the coolest inventions of 2002 by Time magazine, Bowlingual consists of a 3-inch long wireless microphone that attaches to a dog collar and transmits sounds to a palm-sized console that is linked to a database.
The console classifies each woof, yip or whine into six emotional categories -- happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, assertion and desire -- and displays common phrases, such as "You're ticking me off," that fit the dog's emotional state.
Takara says it has spent hundreds of millions of yen developing the device in cooperation with acoustics experts and animal behaviorists and hopes to sell 1 million units in the United States in the first eight months after its launch.
It is undeterred by those who scoff at the idea of paying $120 to read a dog's mind. "Of course people are always really skeptical at first, but once they see a demo they are amazed and impressed," Takara spokesman Kennedy Gitchel says.
GLOBAL TENSIONS MAY BOOST SALES
It is no secret that the product is being launched at a time of solid growth in the $30-billion U.S. pet products market, often considered to be one of the best examples of a recession-proof industry.
Sales in this niche sector have been buoyed in recent years by a steady rise in pet ownership, which has fueled demand for basic pet necessities as well as high-end items such as air-conditioned dog houses and rhinestone ferret collars.
The increasing importance of the industry was highlighted by the nation's reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many Americans found consolation in the familiar routines of their pets and were willing to pay to pamper their furry friends.
That trend continued in the months afterward as U.S. authorities tightened security across the nation and moved closer to considering a military attack on Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein, industry insiders say.
"As fear, tension and insecurity continue to rise in the nation, people are turning to their pets for comfort," says Robert Vetere, executive vice president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group. "They don't mind spending more on them."
Whether the same will hold true when Bowlingual hits the U.S. market is anybody's guess.
Sharper Image Corp. (SHRP.O) and Petsmart Inc. (PETM.O), the No. 1 U.S. pet products company, are among the retailers that have expressed an interest in carrying the product, but so far no deals have been reached, according to Takara.
One thing that does appear certain is that the market for animal translation products will likely remain a dog's world since Takara has no plans to develop a similar device for cats.
"They are too unpredictable," Kajita said.