Dogs and Machine Learning Come Together in an App

Fetch! identifies your pups' breed makeup through new technology.
By JoAnna Lou, February 2016
A few years ago, consumer canine DNA tests became popular among dog lovers curious about their pets' heritage. Through a cheek swab or blood sample, you could see what interesting mix of breeds your rescue pup was made up of. But for many, the novelty didn't warrant the price tag.

Now there's a free, though less scientific, alternative through an app called Fetch! The program was created by Microsoft Garage, a project lab that lets Microsoft employees work on projects not related to their regular job (it's been compared to Google's famous "20% time" initiative).

Using machine learning technology, Fetch! uses a photo database to classify the makeup of a dog. When you take a picture of your pup, it'll tell you the closest percentage of your dog's breed. If your dog is a mix, you can tap the percentage of see the top five potential breeds. My rescue dog, Scuttle, came up as 99% Border Collie, which I think is accurate, but I tried the app with my friends' pups and they came up mostly Basenji and Chihuahua, which I was doubtful about. However, I can see that the accuracy can very depending on the quality of the photo you use.

If you take a non-dog photo, it will say "No dogs found" and offer a guess as to what it is. I tried a photo of my cat and it successfully identified her as a cat. If you use a photo of a person, it will go into Fetch! Fun mode and put cartoon ears on your head and playfully suggest a breed.

Fetch! uses a technology called deep neural networks to identify subtle of differences in images. According to Mitch Goldberg, a development director at Microsoft Research, this is what makes the app successful. You don't train the algorithm on a particular dog breed. In the training process, you give it a number of images and the computer determines what's unique in each of the photos.

Fetch! should improve over time as users leave feedback on the accuracy of the results. Currently the program is available as an iOS app and through a web site.

Whether it's accurate or not, it's certainly a fun program to try with your pups!

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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