Harnessing Dog Lovers: Crowdfunding Helping Canine Science

Dognition co-founder Brian Hare begins a dog-cognition testing game with a willing participant. Photo Courtesy of Brian Hare

Dognition co-founder Brian Hare begins a dog-cognition testing game with a willing participant.
Photo Courtesy of Brian Hare

Brian Hare is an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and the founder of Dognition, a website that helps you find the genius in your dog. This post was an adaptation from his book “The Genius of Dogs,” co-authored by Vanessa Woods (Dutton, 2013). He contributed this article to LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

If you have ever wondered what is going on inside your dog’s mind, science can now help you find out. My collaborators and I recently created a Web-based tool, Dognition, that uses cutting-edge research to help dog owners better understand their dogs while, at the same time, contributing to the biggest study of canine cognition in history.

My research journey with dogs started one day when I was 19 years old. I was in my parents’ garage in Atlanta, where an old canoe was strapped haphazardly to the ceiling, lending a sense of adventure, since it could fall down at any second. Splotches of grease and paint decorated the floor, and a cold fall wind blew in, as the garage had no door.

Sitting in front of me was my best friend, a slobbering black Labrador retriever named Oreo. While Oreo watched, I placed two plastic cups about two meters apart, faked putting food under one cup, and surreptitiously placed a dog biscuit under the other one. Then, I did something Oreo had never seen before: I stood in the middle of the two cups and pointed to the one that had food inside. Oreo bounded over to the cup I pointed at, knocking it over and drooling all over the floor as he ate the treat.

Little did I know that simple moment would define my scientific career. Oreo had used my communicative gesture to make a social inference — something not even our closest ape relatives can do.

I’ve worked with many species, from lemurs to bonobos, and conducted research all over the world, from Siberia to the Congo. But the most fun I’ve ever had with my research was in my parents’ garage, with Oreo slobbering all over my face.

Since then, the study of dog cognition has exploded. Scientists have learned more about dogs in the past decade than in the past century, and these advancements are largely thanks to ordinary dog owners. Instead of keeping dogs in cages on campus, dog research follows the same model as infant research, in which parents are invited to bring their children to universities to participate in studies.

At the Duke Canine Cognition Center, people bring their dogs so my collaborators and I can teach them to play games that reveal how dogs think. I’m always touched with how fascinated people are with their dogs’ performances during the games, and how afterward, they feel like they know their dog a little better. It reminds me of my original excitement with Oreo.

However, the experiments have their limitations. It’s hard for my colleagues and I to test large numbers of dogs quickly. This means we can’t really examine the effect of rearing history, age, sex and breed type, and the interaction of these variables. Most of the time, we are limited to looking at a single cognitive skill in a sample of 10 to 50 dogs.

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