500 Dog Owners “Play” Scientist to Unlock Secrets of the Canine Mind

You look at your dog. He looks at you. It seems like he's trying to read your mind. And you’re pretty sure there’s something going on inside that furry head of his, too. But what? Five hundred dog owners got the chance to play scientist to help researchers find out.

These “citizen scientists” contributed data to a study recently published in the scientific journal Plos One. The research analyzes data collected by 500 dog owners who played the same games at home that researchers used in a laboratory setting, to find out about a dog’s cognitive skills and problem-solving.

The data were collected through the website Dognition, developed by Dr. Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke who studies primate and dog cognition. Hare is also the founder of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke, which has a network of 1,000 dog owners who bring their pets into the lab to participate in research.

On five of the seven tests analyzed, citizen-science data corresponded closely to what had been produced by labs at Duke University and elsewhere.

We think of dogs as primarily using their sense of smell to understand the world around them, yet in one of the game-like tests dogs were found to rely more on their memory to find a hidden treat. The dogs watched as their owner hid food under one of two cups. Then, while the dog’s vision was obscured, the owner switched the food to the other cup.

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Presumably the dogs could smell the food, so they should have been able to choose the correct cup. Surprisingly, owners found that instead most dogs went to where they last saw the food.

“They're just games,” says Hare. “The owners love playing them, and the dogs love playing them. I realized more people could play them if they were online.” As a result, more than 17,000 dog owners from North Carolina to Finland have signed up through Dognition and are now sharing their data with the researchers.

“The data these dog owners are producing is quality data,” says Evan MacLean, a senior research scientist at Duke and co-director of the Canine Cognition Center. “It matches the results we see coming out of the top research groups all over the world.

Analysis of the unusually large dataset also found that all dogs have a unique set of cognitive skills that they use to navigate the world around them. Some dogs were found to be good communicators, some had better memories, and others were better at comprehending their owner’s perspective.

Says Hare, “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.

“So much is possible when you have this much data,” he says. “I’m looking forward to dog owners answering all the big questions that have puzzled scientists for decades.”

Citation: “Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research,” Laughlin Stewart, Evan L. MacLean, et al. PLOS ONE, Sept. 16, 2015.

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