How you and your dog can contribute to cognitive science

Researchers find that dog owners can be good citizen scientists, and even conduct experiments with their canine friends.

Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Humane Society International/File
In this image, Humane Society International animal rescue responder Masha Kalinina holds a puppy at Dulles International Airport after his long flight from South Korea. This puppy was one of twenty-three dogs rescued from a dogmeat farm in Ilsan, South Korea in January.

Do you and your dog want to contribute to science? Now you can, and you don't need a lab coat to ruffle your lab's coat.

A new study shows that ordinary dog owners can conduct experiments in canine cognition. Dog owners successfully replicated studies conducted by trained scientists, and the results match.

Researchers engaged over 500 dog owners and their dogs online, via Dognition, a private startup designed to help dog owners learn more about their individual dog through games.

These games also feed data back to the researchers’ servers. 

“You get to learn about your own dog and play these games and have a great time,” says study author Brian Hare. “At the same time, you’re contributing to the greater good of learning about all dogs.”

Before diving into their research, the scientists had to make sure citizen scientists could be reliable experimenters. They employed previous research to design tests to both provide a cognitive assessment for dog owners and compare their results with more traditional research. 

The result is a paper published Wednesday in PLOS ONE. In it, researchers detail the steps they took to ensure Dognition data was useful, scientifically.

Almost every study replicated previous results. 

First, researchers had to test the games. They started with 20 different tasks for the initial cognitive assessment on the site. Only 10 of those games made it to the final version, with tweaks along the way. 

Some games were tossed out because instructions were too difficult to ensure uniformity while others were not engaging enough. 

Dr. Hare and the other researchers broke ground by engaging citizen scientists in the experiments. 

“Most citizen science is observational in nature,” says Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and founder of Dognition.

“Experiments are different. It’s a little bit more like a recipe. If you don’t add the ingredients the right way, well, you don’t end up with the cake you thought you were going to make.”

“I have no doubt that people made procedural errors. I have no doubt that people didn’t do it perfectly,” he says. But, since the data set was so large, the few mistakes faded into the background.

Hare notes that he won’t rely entirely on citizen scientist data. Instead, he hopes it becomes a sort of "hypothesis generator," identifying questions that scientists might not otherwise pose.

In fact, the researchers have already found a new hypothesis in their dog-owner-generated data. 

“Dogs have different types of intelligence,” says Hare. This new data is helping researchers identify three or four different intelligence domains in dogs. 

“We have had it beat into our heads to think about intelligence as something you have more or less of. It’s a cup that is either half full or maybe 80 percent full,” says Hare. But intelligence isn’t linear, he says. “There are different domains or different types of intelligence and they vary independently.”

For example, one dog may identify novel pointing gestures from their humans well, following their human’s direction even when it comes from a pointed foot. That same dog may not perform as well during memory tasks. 

Hare likens these varying intelligences to high school pals. One might be good at, say, math while her friend does well in history. Neither one is necessarily more intelligent than the other, because those abilities come from different cognitive domains, not a point along a spectrum.

But why study dogs? 

We humans have close ties with our furry, domesticated friends. These links could help people see intelligence domains in themselves, says Hare. By demonstrating this research in dogs, it might be more accessible for humans to identify with it.

Furthermore, “Dogs have more jobs than ever,” says Hare. Some dogs work with the military, some help with security. Other canines are search and rescue dogs or service dogs. And those jobs just keep multiplying. 

“How do you get the right dog to the right job with the right person?” says Hare. Studies using the Dognition data could help match canines to their careers, or help people adopt the right hairy addition to their family.

Participants on the Dognition site can pay $20 for the one-time cognitive assessment or $80 for a yearlong subscription. The subscription includes a new game each month and provides users with information from canine cognitive experts. 

The games, or experiments, are designed to be simple. All a dog owner needs is a computer, tablet or smart phone, their dog, and some household items. The most difficult item to track down might be a Post-it note, says Hare.

“Science has now become something that anyone can do,” says Hare. And, he adds, just because science is accessible doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Hare plans to explore much more data generated by Dognition now that he knows it works.

“This is just the beginning,” says Hare.

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