The invitation that greets users on Dognition.com is simple: “Find the genius in your dog.”
A citizen journalism site launched in 2013, Dognition measures your dog’s personality with 20 science-based games, then catalogs the data for a huge scientific study. On Wednesday, two years into watching dogs across the globe play fetch, co-founder Dr. Brian Hare and team released their first scientific paper.
Published in Plos One, the study set out to examine whether or not the data Dognition obtains actually reveals things about dogs’ personalities. In other words, are the tens of thousands of people contributing information about their dogs’ personalities actually helping scientists make discoveries?
The answer, much to dog lovers’ delight, is yes.
There is a wealth of new information about the way dogs think in the 33-page study, much of which uproots popular belief that breed determines personality. “The breed of your dog, in general, communicates very little,” Hare says. “Other than what it looks like.”
Preconceived notions about breeds (such as intelligence level) are what Hare hopes to eliminate. To do so, he and his team are harnessing the very fuel behind them: a widespread fascination with dogs. After performing personality tests on dogs in the labs of Duke in 2013, he and his colleagues took note of how much the owners enjoyed the process. “We thought, ‘How can we make this available to everyone?’”
Allowing all dog owners the opportunity to evaluate their dog’s personality using these tests has a brilliant flipside—it allows the scientists to gather an impossible amount of data. The concept has been used successfully in the past. Hare points to the Audubon Society, which relies on members to track birds’ migratory patterns each year.
Dognition is similar. Those who decide to participate in the project are also funding it. Users can either just get the one-time analysis ($19), or become a member, which gives them access to games, tips, and tricks, as well as a 50 percent discount on tests for additional dogs.
“You get to find out about your own dog, but you’re paying for research that other dog lovers will be interested in too,” Hare explains. He says that obtaining a grant from the federal government to test the personality of dogs would be near impossible, as it’s not something that has immediate benefits for the population, such as bomb-sniffing or service dogs. This, he says, is a sort of crowdsourcing study where dog lovers do it themselves.
The study, titled “Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition,” delves into both the benefit of citizen science and the intricacies of the canine mind. The goal was to analyze the results of over 500 citizen scientists, one in the lab and one at home, to see if they mimicked each other. After comparing the two, the scientists found that the Dognition results “closely resembled” those obtained using laboratory approaches. In other words: The citizen scientists drew similar conclusions to the professional ones.
Dog lovers who decide to participate in the study are given an evaluation consisting of 20 interactive games that involve giving your dog commands and recording how it reacts. The unique combination of results pits your dog in one of nine categories: Ace, Charmer, Socialite, Expert, Renaissance Dog, Protodog, Einstein, Maverick, or Stargazer.
Each profile includes data on how many dogs have fallen into the category, as well as strengths and weaknesses that are associated with it. Aces are described as “accomplished problem solver[s] with great communication skills”; Charmers as “smooth operators” that rely on their owners as a “secret weapon”; Mavericks as dogs with “a cheeky wolfishness and a strong independent streak.”
While some may worry that their tests aren’t good enough or that their dogs “messed up,” scientists say that even imperfect results are useful. “The data these dog owners are producing is quality data,” Senior Researcher and Co-Director of Duke’s Canine Cognition center Evan MacLean says. “It matches the results we see coming out of the top research groups all over the world.”
One of the most important findings, in MacLean’s mind, was that most dogs—when asked to find a hidden treat—relied more on memory than their sense of smell. This finding, which was replicated many times, pokes holes in the concept that dogs’ sense of smell is king. “Most people think dogs use their sense of smell for everything,” says MacLean. “But actually, dogs use a whole range of senses when solving problems.”
But as exciting as the new study is, Hare says it’s just the beginning of what is already—with tens of thousands of submissions—one of the largest studies of animal psychology in the world. If successful, it may change everything we think we know about dogs. “The science has all been out about each species, but we’re moving to compare individual dogs, because they are individuals,” he says. “That’s why saying ‘I want a Labrador retriever,’ it’s not really helpful. That tells you what the dog looks like, it doesn’t tell you much else.”