You’re familiar with this scene: a dog and its owner walk side by side down the street, and you can’t help but smirk that the dog is dressed up just like its owner. It’s undeniable–people often view their dogs as extensions of themselves. The marked bond between people and their dogs is one that often surpasses that with other domesticated animals. You can look at dogs as providers of companionship for humans.
On the other hand, this same bond has given dogs a special kind of social intelligence that is truly unique in the animal kingdom. Enter Dognition, a new citizen science project that aims to contribute to research that furthers the study of dog cognition—the way your dog’s mind processes the world around it.
Although only in its beta phase, Dognition has gained an enthusiastic following in over 38 countries. (Dog lovers, unite!) The project involves engaging your dog in science-based experiments that assess its cognition based on independent problem solving and social problem solving.
Here’s an example of a simple Dognition experiment you can perform with your dog:
Keep in mind—these experiments don’t measure your dog’s IQ. Rather, they assess how your dog navigates the world around it. The data that you collect from these experiments helps deepen the empathy that you share with your dog just as much as it helps researchers understand all dogs as a whole. At the end of your experiments, Dognition provides a platform that allows you to profile your dog based on its results. Is your dog an Einstein? A stargazer? A Renaissance dog? Participants have the potential to gain valuable insight on their dog’s personality through this project.
Dognition is the brainchild of Dr. Brian Hare, who co-authored the book counterpart to this project with his wife. The Genius of Dogs – How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think hit the shelves on February 5, 2013. The book delves into these as well as some other curious topics. (I’m excited for my copy to arrive! It’s the perfect supplement to this already fascinating citizen science project.)
•How we came to know that dogs can retain hundreds, even thousands of words and gestures;
•How “survival of the friendliest” led dogs to domesticate themselves;
•The truth about dogs and physics (and how they’re lousy at it).
Caveat emptor, though. This nifty service comes with a price tag. With a base fee of $60, participants can get started. “Owners tell us that Dognition is helping them understand their dogs better,” says Dr. Hare. “This is a wonderful–and very distinctive–offering. Making it possible has required bringing to the table years of research and expertise, one-of-a-kind technology, plus service and support. This service allows us to make these things available.”
Dedicated to all dogs, Dognition is an ideal project for owners who treasure a deeper relationship with their dogs and are excited about gaining an intimate understanding of dog behavior–perhaps unearthing what exactly it is that makes dogs man’s (and woman’s) best friend.
Dr. Brian Hare himself sat down with SciStarter for a brief Q&A session. He tells us firsthand what inspired his research, what the study hopes to learn about dogs, how he assembled his team, and more.
1. How and when did you discover that dogs can read human gestures?
I was a 19 year old undergraduate at Emory University and I was working with an amazing Psychology Professor Mike Tomasello. Mike was one of the first to realize that human infants develop powerful social skills as early as nine months. This is when infants begin to understand what adults are trying to communicate when they point. Infants also begin pointing out things to other people. Whether an infant watches you point to a bird or the infant points to their favorite toy, they are beginning to build core communication skills. By paying attention to the reactions and gestures of other people, as well as to what other people are paying attention to, infants are beginning to read other people’s intentions.
Mike knew that our closest living relatives, the great apes, could not use human gestures, so he thought that perhaps this ability was unique to humans.
But like many dog owners, I’d spent countless hours playing fetch with my childhood dog, Oreo. If he lost a ball, I’d help him find it by pointing in the right direction. When Mike told me that a chimpanzee couldn’t follow a human point to find food, I blurted out ‘my dog can do that!’ and it all began from there.
2. Apart from helping people learn more about their dogs through science-based games/exercises, what do you hope to learn about dogs as a whole from the collected data?
There are so many fascinating questions people have about dogs that, at the moment, we can’t answer with science – we just don’t have enough time or enough dogs. For example, to answer which breed is the best communicator or the most empathetic, I’d need at least 30 dogs from each breed. If you took the AKC breeds or all breeds worldwide, you would need between 6,000 -12,000 puppies, decades of work, millions of dollars, and about a thousand graduate students. It is no wonder no one has done it. But with Dognition.com, we could do exactly this and more. Questions that we could only dream of answering are now becoming a distinct possibility.
3. Your team seems to come from various backgrounds. How did you assemble the team, and how does it function for this project? How is it managed from different locations?
I was kicking around the idea around the Business school at Duke of a company where people could use science to find out the unique genius of their dog. One of the students of entrepreneurial law said to me, ‘You’ve got to meet Kip Frey’. Besides being a Professor at the Law School, Kip is also an incredibly successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist. We had coffee one day and that’s how it started.
From there, we hand-picked a team to do two things: build a company that would serve the needs of dogs and their owners. And, just as exciting, contribute to the greater good of dogs, through discoveries that could not otherwise be pursued.
We built an advisory board that includes world-leading experts in canine cognition, as well as veterans in the media and technology space — Mark Benerofe, founder and advisor to successful startups including Sony Online Entertainment and Match.com; Web innovator Thede Loder, who was part of the original technology team that created Match.com; Marshall Brain, a leading entrepreneur and founder of HowStuffWorks.com — plus nationally renowned advertising agency, McKinney. They have helped create a rich consumer-facing experience and provided market research, brand development and marketing.
Additionally, we’ve enlisted a panel of highly respected thought leaders from a broad spectrum of dog-oriented disciplines, for the purpose of sharing ideas and providing feedback on Dognition’s mission, products and practices. They contribute their expertise in areas like canine health and well-being, training, service, and behavior. This includes world renowned dog trainer and best-selling author, Victoria Stilwell, and Paul Mundell, National Director of Canine Programs for CCI, Canines Companions for Independence. This unique assembly of experts will help inform our programming and services to meet our over-arching goal of servicing the greater good of all dogs, even while we help individual owners understand and nurture their own dogs in new ways.
4. What inspired you to create a citizen science counterpart to your book?
The whole point of the book, as the title suggests, is to uncover the genius of all dogs. The point of Dognition.com, is to allow people to uncover the genius of their dog, and in doing so, help us better understand all dogs.
Interested in other dog behavior citizen science projects? Worry not—we’ve got others for you too! Check out Play With Your Dog from the Horowitz Lab.