Play With Your Dog, for Science

The website wants to revolutionize canine research by getting everyday pet owners involved.

Darren Staples / Reuters

Scientists still aren’t sure exactly when domesticated dogs first split off from wild wolves, or even how it happened—did people adopt and tame wolves tens of thousands of years ago? Or did wolves start tagging along with people of their own volition, effectively taming themselves?

Regardless of the cause, though, this much is clear: Just coexisting with dogs isn’t really cutting it for us. (Coexist is kind of a chilly verb for man to apply to its best friend, anyway.) We want to understand dogs the way dogs seem to understand people. They have warm eyes that can bore straight into the soul;  we have science.

In the past decade or so, scientists have published hundreds of studies on canine cognition and behavior. Among other things, these studies suggest that dogs are better at reading human social cues than many primates, and that they’re the only animals other than humans who have shown the ability to make certain types of inferences.

The appeal of these findings is pretty straightforward—there’s satisfaction in discovering what you have in common with something you love. (There’s also satisfaction in creating those commonalities, which is why some people dress up their dogs like four-legged humans, or treat them like children, or want to believe that their pets grow to look like them). But labs can only hold so many dogs and only run so many tests at one time, and most of these studies use a small number of dogs to draw species-wide conclusions. And so, some scientists are starting to wonder if dog owners can be used to conduct research.

In a study published today in the journal PLoS One, researchers unveiled preliminary results from the website (tagline: “Find the genius in your dog”). Created by Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist and the head of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, the site leads users and their dogs through a series of behavioral tests designed to reveal the dog’s “cognitive style.”

In a task designed to test whether a dog relies more on memory or smell, for example, an owner will place a treat under one of two cups as the dog watches, then switch the treat to the other cup without the dog seeing. If the dog heads to the original cup, the answer is memory; the second, sense of smell. Once the results are all logged, the site will use the data to assign a dog to one of nine “cognitive profiles,” with labels like “Charmer” (bonded, attentive) and “Maverick” (independent, problem solver).

The researchers compared the Dognition results—522 dogs in total, taken from the site’s beta-testing round and the first wave of paid subscribers—against the data they had collected from the same tasks in past studies at the Canine Cognition Center and elsewhere. In five out of seven categories, they found, the Dognition data matched up with what they had found in controlled lab studies—a pattern, they say, that hints at a future for citizen science as a fruitful area of dog research.

But while the practical research applications of Dognition may be a ways down the road, the site also offers something more immediately gratifying. The Internet is full of personality quizzes that promise to assign users a spirit animal or a Harry Potter house. For similar reasons, the Meyers-Briggs test endures despite criticisms of its limited use. Likewise, offers a way to neatly sort our pets the way we do ourselves. “I’m an ENTJ, and Buster’s an Einstein.” “I’m a Hufflepuff, and Sparky’s a Charmer.” Dognition is a way of understanding people as much as a way of understanding dogs—at its core, it’s another reflection of the deep-seated desire to draw connections between humans and their four-legged friends.

It also offers a window into the evolution of dogs over time. “It’s not always survival of the fittest. Sometimes it’s the friendliest that have an evolutionary edge,” Hare told Scientific American in a 2013 interview. Sometimes it’s the friendliest that are forced to pose for photos dressed as tiny lumberjacks, but no animal can truly have it all.