App can tell if your canine's an Einstein

KATY WALDMAN
Last updated 11:48 13/02/2013
Fairfax Australia

Sample game to play with your dog from Dognition.

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Stupid money!

It's the only thing standing between me and a new web app I sorely want: Dognition, which will confirm once and for all that my dog is a genius.

(Admittedly, that genius is buried deep.Most people who know Ziggy don't immediately equate his aggression towards water pipes with intellectual prowess.)

Dognition, launched last week with a US$60 price tag, is essentially an intelligence test for dogs.

The brainchild of Brian Hare, an anthropology professor and director of the canine cognition centre at Duke University, North Carolina, it consists of assessment questions (eg, "Does Benjy ever 'intervene' in an argument between other members of the household?" "When you laugh, does Benjy wag his tail?") and simple games involving plastic cups, treats, paper and sticky notes.

Together, these tests measure canine IQ across five dimensions: empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning.

This is not just an opportunity for you to brag that your dog is smarter than your neighbours' mutt: the data gathered by the app flow into Duke University, where it will be analysed and used as a launching pad for more focused experiments.

For instance, if the collected scores show a pattern of dachshunds shining at spatial reasoning, the Duke team might investigate that in a lab setting (and possibly a Lab setting, too, for control purposes).

The app is like a chew toy for dog lovers like me who enjoy imagining the rich (I can only assume) internal lives of their pets. (Alexandra Horowitz's Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know bounded onto The New York Times best-seller list for a reason.)

We open our front doors, see our pals' faces, want to think they're asking about our days. When we turn to look at something and their eyes follow ours, we hear them agreeing, "How about that."

After you finish the quizzes and games in Dognition, your results beam into Duke, get knocked through several algorithms, and come back to you in the form of a 15-page report on the intricacies of Benjy's cognitive style.

It sounds enthralling, but "No IQ score?" I asked Professor Hare.

He explained that dog intelligence, like human, is fluid and non-hierarchal. (He doesn't think people should get IQ scores, either.)

You can't slap a number on a canine forehead or arrange pooches along a continuum from the Aristotles to the dropouts.

What you can do is suss out your pup's "mental strategy".

Take one of the games in the Dognition playbook. Two cups are placed upside down on the floor. One has a morsel of food under it - and your dog knows it, because you've just lifted the rim up to show him. But then you let go of his collar and point to the cup without the food.

If Benjy is primarily empathic, he trusts you and will follow your finger. If he relies on memory to make decisions, chances are he'll gravitate towards the cup with the treat.

This could help you finally solve some of your canine's behavioural problems. "One-size-fits-all training ignores the fact that dogs are individuals," Professor Hare says. "Trainers could use Dognition to give owners tailored recommendations."

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Like what? He invites me to imagine a hypothetical puppy that doesn't seem to be catching on to basic commands. Perhaps, rather than being dim, she's a cunning operator who obeys orders only when she thinks her owner's watching (ie, once the front door slams, chewing on the couch leg is fair game).

Knowing such details about your dog might help you sympathise, design a better teaching program, and ultimately not end up resentful and with no furniture.

-Slate

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