California County Hopes Facial Recognition Tech Will Reunite More Missing Dogs with Owners

The technology — which notes 128 facial points and features, like eye-to-nose geometry — is accurate 98 percent of the time and will soon be available for cats.

by Kimberly Veklerov, San Francisco Chronicle / August 10, 2016

(TNS) -- The arrival of an unnamed black Labrador caused a small commotion round noontime Tuesday when he sauntered into the Solano County animal shelter’s intake room.

The pooch, its fur unkempt and covered in fleas, was found wandering near a highway in Suisun City before a concerned woman brought him in. A technician gave him a syringe-full of vaccine to protect against parvo, a contagious virus, and kennel cough. Another woman waved a wand that turned up no sign of a computer chip that would have identified the stray and linked it to an owner.

“No microchip, no tags on the collar,” Lt. Cathy Raymos of the Solano County Sheriff’s Office, who runs the shelter’s operations, noted with disapproval.

At the end of the evaluation, kennel worker Aunie Winn pulled out a point-and-shoot camera and tried to get the dog to stay relatively still.

“Too close, too close,” she told the pooch, before handing the camera off to Amanda Hoover, who’s in charge of outreach and volunteers for the shelter. Hoover meowed to get the dog’s attention and snapped his photo.

The picture, not unlike booking photos for inmates at the jail adjacent to the shelter, was uploaded to a database that keeps kennel inventory and has details on each animal.

Starting this week, some of that information will also be sent to an app that uses facial recognition technology to match missing dogs to those that have been found.

Officials in Solano County’s animal care department and the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the often-at-capacity shelter, hope the technology will increase the percentage of animals reclaimed by their owners — right now, only 10 to 15 percent. They also want the app to cut down on the time animals spend in the shelter, which can rack up boarding fees for owners when they finally come in.

Data from the app, Finding Rover, is shared with up to 180 municipal shelters across the county, in hopes of reuniting pet owners with their lost furry friends. And Solano County, like the app users, didn’t have to shell out any money to get the technology.

Owners upload photos and details of their dogs to the database, and if Sparky or Buster ever runs away, someone who finds the animal can upload another photo, which will match to the first one and alert the owner. For shelters, the photos are automatically sent to the network.

The technology — which notes 128 facial points and features, like eye-to-nose geometry — is accurate 98 percent of the time and will soon be available for cats, said John Polimeno, founder of Finding Rover.

“It’s one more way for people to recognize their animal,” Hoover said inside the intake room. “We need, like, 500 more ways.”

Veterinarians and shelter workers still hope pet owners use traditional means of keeping track of their animals: microchips, licenses and tags on collars. Raymos said the app may help people who can’t travel to the shelter or who are too lazy to do so.

“It’s amazing how many people want to sit on their couch and find their animals,” she said.

But Polimeno, who commissioned the technology to be developed at the University of Utah, said owners looking for lost dogs often have to return to shelters every day. With the app, that becomes unnecessary, he said.

“When Harley, our black Lab, jumped the fence, those were probably the worst three days of my life,” said Polimeno, who lives in Brentwood. He put his children in the backseat and they searched for three days, eventually finding the dog safe at a neighbor’s house.

Years later, in 2013, a lost-dog poster at a coffee shop brought back the unpleasant memory and spurred Polimeno to look for a more innovative way of reuniting lost pets to their humans, eventually spawning Finding Rover’s creation.

“I can’t make people come down here,” Raymos said, “so if this is an avenue to help reunification, I’m happy.”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.