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New pet finder app uses facial recognition technology

MIAMI -- Is Fido missing? There’s an app for that.

Really. And, borrowing from law enforcement, it involves facial recognition -- 128 facial features, to be precise.

For dogs.

Recently Miami-Dade Animal Services will become the first shelter in Florida to have its dogs integrated in the free Finding Rover app, whose developer came up with the idea when he saw a missing dog poster, triggering “horrible” memories of his lost dog.

Here’s how it works: A person downloads the app through their smartphone and registers their dog by snapping a picture. The app loads it into a database. If their dog goes missing, the dog owner clicks a button to report it.

The software then searches the database for a match. If a match comes up, the owner is notified. If someone finds a dog, he or she can take a picture of it and upload the photo to the site. If the dog has been reported missing and is registered, the app will notify the person who found the dog.

The idea that all you need is a smartphone to help reunite a dog with its owner is very exciting to Miami-Dade Animal Services Director Alex Munoz.

“It’s just one more way for us to keep dogs out of the shelter and in their homes,” he said.

John Polimeno, the man behind the app, recently demonstrated how easy the tool works at Miami-Dade County Animal Services. Using his i­Phone, he snapped a photo of 3-month-old Ringo, a terrier mix, found in the area recently.

The barking button on the app got Ringo’s attention; Polimeno got a close-up of the dog’s face and posted it on the app.

“It helps to get their attention,” Polimeno said of the barking button. “It’s that easy.”

Polimeno, 56, said there are about 100,000 users in the United States and Australia, but the goal is 100 million around the world. And you don’t have to own a dog to register.

Munoz said the app will help the agency become a no-kill shelter. Last year, the shelter saved 82 percent of its dogs and 80 percent of its cats.

Munoz said only about 1,000 of about 15,000 animals that come into the shelter annually are reunited with their families.

“We are always looking for new ways to keep animals safe and out of the shelter,” he said.

Polimeno came up with the idea three years ago as he sat at a coffee shop with his wife in Northern California. He said he spotted a poster of a missing dog and it brought back memories of when his black lab, Harley, went missing.

Harley had jumped over their fence and took off. He and his kids, who were about 10 and 11 at the time, were devastated. They plastered the neighborhood with posters and drove around the neighborhood until they finally found Harley three days later with a neighbor.

As he spoke to his wife an idea hit him.

“I figured they used facial recognition on humans, why can’t they use it on dogs,” he recalled.

He teamed up with the University of Utah and after about a year they developed software that uses an algorithm to use facial features to match pets that are lost and found. Polimeno said furry friends are a bit trickier than humans -- short ears, long ears, long snouts, short snouts.

Polimeno said he and his investors have spent about $1 million, and have more ideas in the works, including advertising on the site. They’ve started promoting the app with a music video parodying Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” featuring dancing pooches.

San Diego County Animal Services was the first shelter to partner with Polimeno. Since introducing the app six months ago, the shelter has had two reunions.

A 10-year-old Shiba Inu named Roxie was dropped off at the shelter after the person who found the dog checked the app and didn’t get a match.

Turns out Roxie’s owner had already visited the shelter, but didn’t find his dog. He saw the poster for Finding Rover, and his daughter uploaded a picture of Roxie wearing sunglasses.

So when Roxie came into the shelter, a worker said she remembered seeing the dog on the app.

“Every time an animal goes home it is a good thing at an animal shelter,” said Daniel DeSousa, deputy director of the County of San Diego Animal Services Department. “For us that proved that this does help and it does get dogs reunited.”

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