Fun Games You Can Enjoy With Your Dog While Contributing to Science

dog cognition

Story at-a-glance

  • Citizen scientists are everyday people who help researchers compile data on different subjects
  • Recently 500 dog owner citizen scientists from around the world performed cognition-related experiments with their pets, and their test results corresponded closely to the results produced by researchers at Duke University
  • The large sample sizes achieved using citizen scientist projects allow researchers to compile enormous amounts of data and fast-track study results on dog cognition

By Dr. Becker

Have you ever heard of “citizen scientists?” They’re average everyday people who help actual scientists and researchers conduct studies. A recent research article published in the open access journal PLoS ONE documents a citizen scientist study to learn what goes on inside the minds of dogs.1

The citizen scientists were 500 dog owners from across the globe who did little experiments with their pets — the same experiments researchers use in the laboratory to analyze the ability of dogs to think and problem-solve.

On 5 of the 7 tests included in the study, the data collected from the dog owners corresponded closely to the results produced at Duke University and elsewhere.

The Memory vs. Smell Test

In one game or test, depicted in the video below, dogs proved they depend more on their memory than their nose to find treats hidden under overturned plastic cups.

The dog observes her owner hide a treat under one of the cups. Then while a helper distracts the dog, the owner moves the treat to the other cup while the dog isn’t looking.

When the dogs are released to find the treat, instead of following their noses to the right cup, most of them go to the cup they saw their owner place the treat under.

Dog Owners Across the Globe Are Becoming Citizen Scientists

The citizen scientist dog owners in the above study used the website Dognition to record the results of their tests. The site was created by Brian Hare, Evolutionary Anthropology associate professor at Duke University and the founder of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center.

According to Hare, the tests are “just games.” “The owners love playing them and the dogs love playing them. I realized more people could play them if they were online,” he says.

Over 17,000 dog owners from as far away as Finland are participating at Dognition. And according to Evan MacLean, co-director of the Canine Cognition Center, they’re doing a great job:

“The data these dog owners are producing is quality data, says MacLean. “It matches the results we see coming out of the top research groups all over the world.”2

The memory-or-smell test results have been replicated over and over, proving their validity. Conventional wisdom holds that dogs use their sense of smell almost exclusively, but in reality, “…dogs use a whole range of senses when solving problems,” says MacLean.

‘Intelligence Is Like Ice Cream. Everybody Has Different Flavors.’

Because there are so many dog owners inputting information into Dognition, researchers have been able to compile a great deal of fascinating data on the inner workings of the canine mind.

They’ve learned that all dogs have a unique set of mental skills they use in everyday life. Some dogs are better communicators than others, some have better memories, and some dogs excel at understanding their owner’s perspective.

According to Brian Hare:

“Most people think of intelligence as glass that is more or less full. But intelligence is more like ice cream. Everybody has different flavors. Being good at one thing doesn’t mean you will be good at everything else.”3

The more citizen scientists participating in studies, the more information the researchers are able to gather about the way our canine companions think.

If You’re Interested in Participating

Per the Dognition website:

“The Dognition Assessment provides a window into your dog's individual cognitive style — the thinking, learning, and problem-solving strategies that influence much of your dog's behavior.

You'll play science-based games that assess five core dimensions of your dog's cognition — empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning.

Then, in your dog‘s Dognition Profile Report, you'll gain a richer understanding of your dog through analysis and insight from the world's top canine experts.”

Dognition has 2 ways to participate:

  • For $19, you get a one-time assessment that includes 20 interactive games, an in-depth game analysis, and a Dognition Profile Report
  • For a $79 annual charge, you get the 3 items above, plus monthly games, expert tips and tricks, and 50 percent off additional dogs. If you’d prefer to pay monthly vs. annually, it’s a $9 per month charge plus the one-time $19 charge

You can also give either package as a gift.

Other Citizen Science Dog Cognition Studies

When confined to laboratory studies, traditional research on dog cognition has a huge limitation — small sample sizes. Either people must bring their dogs to a research facility, or researchers must visit households with dogs or other dog-friendly spaces to gather data.

As a result, most of these studies involve less than 50 dog participants. Enter citizen science, which gives researchers the potential for enormous sample sizes.

Other citizen scientist studies on dog cognition include a past project called “Play with Your Dog,”4 sponsored by the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College led by professor Alexandra Horowitz.5 “Play with Your Dog” allowed researchers to study dog-human relationships in homes and backyards around the globe by having owners record and upload videos of them at play with their dogs.



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