17 Jun

Helping Your Dog Play “Dognition”

The internet is brimming with quizzes to help you find out what your spirit animal is, which political candidate you should vote for, and the most infamous – the quiz that reveals your personality. Let’s not leave your dog out in the cold! Dognition, from Dr. Brian Hare, of Duke University, brings the fun of quizzes right to your dog’s electronic doorstep.

Through a series of games, Dognition will reveal your dog’s personality, as represented by one of their 9 archetype badges. They collect your dog’s data, creating a large database of “citizen science” results, and allow you to compare your dog with the entire pool of participants. Oliver and I are halfway through the games, and seeing the results and graphics has been fun – comparable to finding out “Which fictional dragon would you be?” (note: I like dragons), with the added bonus of spending time with my best canine friend. And Oliver’s motivation? Cheese and hot dogs. Yum.

Cognition research is a challenging branch of science, and I’m hoping that Dognition’s endeavor will help us to design better experiments and to more deeply understand our pets. There’s a lot of promise for applications of cognitive research, and a lot of bright people working on producing reliable and valid tests. For now, Oliver’s Dognition Personality Badge is simply for fun. As of yet, there is not a great personality test for dogs, horses, or other animals that accomplishes a functional goal, such as choose an adoptive family or select a training approach.

In fact, applying a label to the animal you are training can hinder your progress by biasing how you view that animal and it’s behavior. You may fail to be objective in your observation of your animal’s response, and falsely interpret a behavior. For example, you may “see dominance” when in fact you have a dog that is really excited.

Your bias might even actually affect the behavior of your animal! This is called the observer-expectancy effect. For a super cool study on this, listen to the fabulous This American Life episode “Batman”. In short, “smart” rats learned a maze faster than “dumb” rats – but all rats were from the same stock, and the only difference was how their intelligence was disclosed when the rats were first presented to the trainers. (There’s a lot of other cool stuff in the broadcast as well, so check it out.)

There are many blogs by smart people about why we shouldn’t label our dogs due to their history, breed, or personality trait, so give those a read if you’d like to explore the concept further.

If you’re simply looking for something fun to do, or a change of pace, Dognition might be quite entertaining. We’ve enjoyed making predictions about Oliver’s behavior. Oliver’s been pumped about the treats. Win-win.

This week I stumbled upon Coursera’s Dog Emotion and Cognition (free) class, taught by the same Dr. Hare. If you sign up as a student through Coursera, and visit Dognition through the MOOC link that they suggest, you’ll also get 20% off the Dognition Assessment Games. I don’t get commission for this, and I’m not an affiliate – I’m mostly a MOOC nerd and want to share the fun. I’ve enjoyed many Coursera courses in the past and so far this one is very well done.

My recommendation is to remember to keep your Dognition sessions short and sweet – don’t try to do all the categories at once with your dog. Make sure you have plenty of break time in between the categories so that you can play, and don’t take the tests if your dog is tired or too stressed. (If you really  feel the need to get more badges, you can always try helping your dog check into Foursquare.) Have fun!

Oliver play bows during a break from Dognition tests

Oliver play bows during a break from Dognition tests

 

 

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