How You and Your Dog Can Contribute to Cognitive Science

By Botkin-Kowacki, Eva | The Christian Science Monitor, September 18, 2015 | Go to article overview

How You and Your Dog Can Contribute to Cognitive Science


Botkin-Kowacki, Eva, The Christian Science Monitor


Do you and your dog want to contribute to science? Now you can, and you don't need a lab coat to ruffle your lab's coat.

A new study shows that ordinary dog owners can conduct experiments in canine cognition. Dog owners successfully replicated studies conducted by trained scientists, and the results match.

Researchers engaged over 500 dog owners and their dogs online, via Dognition, a private startup designed to help dog owners learn more about their individual dog through games.

These games also feed data back to the researchers' servers.

"You get to learn about your own dog and play these games and have a great time," says study author Brian Hare. "At the same time, you're contributing to the greater good of learning about all dogs."

Before diving into their research, the scientists had to make sure citizen scientists could be reliable experimenters. They employed previous research to design tests to both provide a cognitive assessment for dog owners and compare their results with more traditional research.

The result is a paper published Wednesday in PLOS ONE. In it, researchers detail the steps they took to ensure Dognition data was useful, scientifically.

Almost every study replicated previous results.

First, researchers had to test the games. They started with 20 different tasks for the initial cognitive assessment on the site. Only 10 of those games made it to the final version, with tweaks along the way.

Some games were tossed out because instructions were too difficult to ensure uniformity while others were not engaging enough.

Dr. Hare and the other researchers broke ground by engaging citizen scientists in the experiments.

"Most citizen science is observational in nature," says Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and founder of Dognition.

"Experiments are different. It's a little bit more like a recipe. If you don't add the ingredients the right way, well, you don't end up with the cake you thought you were going to make."

"I have no doubt that people made procedural errors. I have no doubt that people didn't do it perfectly," he says. But, since the data set was so large, the few mistakes faded into the background.

Hare notes that he won't rely entirely on citizen scientist data. Instead, he hopes it becomes a sort of "hypothesis generator," identifying questions that scientists might not otherwise pose.

In fact, the researchers have already found a new hypothesis in their dog-owner-generated data.

"Dogs have different types of intelligence," says Hare. …

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