Feb. 13, 2013 at 4:10 PM ET
Is your dog an Einstein or a Charmer? For $60 (woof!!), a new business venture called Dognition will help you put your pooch through a series of fun playtime activities to find out how your dog thinks. The metrics generated by those experiments … I mean, fun playtime activities … are being fed into a research project that could for the first time determine how the cognitive traits of various breeds differ.
"Dognition.com is ultimately about people's dogs, and finding out about your dog," Duke University neuroscientist Brian Hare, one of the venture's co-founders, told NBC News. "That's what you're paying for. I buy fancy dog food for my dog, and just like I want to take care of his stomach, I want to take care of his mind, too. Skip the next couple of chew toys, and your dog and you will really enjoy doing something a little different."
The business venture builds on Hare's work as the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology at Duke's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. It also meshes with a newly published book by Hare and his wife, Vanessa Woods, titled "The Genius of Dogs."
How smart are dogs?
Don't expect Dognition's cognitive assessment to measure your pet's IQ: Hare says a dog's intelligence can't be described with a single number. (Come to think of it, the same caveat should apply to humans.)
"Because we use standardized testing in all walks of life, it leads you to believe that there's just one measure of intelligence, and there's a number, and that's it," Hare said. "But when you start studying cognitive science, and look at other species, that all starts to crumble."
It's also fruitless to try calculating whether dogs are smarter than cats, or chimps, or bonobos. "That's like trying to answer the question, 'Is a hammer better than a screwdriver?'" Hare said. Instead, he and his colleagues look at how dogs and other species address problem-solving challenges and communicate with humans. It turns out that dogs are geniuses when it comes to figuring out what humans are trying to tell them — which suggests that our world is truly going to the dogs.
"Dogs are bizarrely successful," Hare said. "They have more jobs than ever in this age of the Internet and the International Space Station."
Researchers have even argued that humans and dogs are locked in a co-evolutionary embrace that began tens of thousands of years ago. Last month, for example, one research team determined that canine digestive systems have adapted to the relatively starchy diet served up by modern humans.
How it works
Hare's research into dog cognition began back in 1995, with studies of how dogs looked for hidden treats when humans tried giving them hints. Those experiments, which are done using simple household items such as plastic cups (plus tons of treats), are laid out in Dognition's Canine Assessment Toolkit.
After you plunk your money down, Dognition's website takes you through a personality questionnaire about your dog: For example, how excited does your dog get around other dogs, grown-ups, children? Do fireworks scare your pup? Then, Dognition guides you through a battery of tests that are as fun as playing fetch, or hide-and-seek. The results are uploaded to Dognition HQ, and you get back a detailed profile of your dog's mental habits, based on where Fido's performance ends up on a chart of independent vs. social problem-solving skills.
Different areas of the chart are associated with nine different canine archetypes: Ace, Stargazer, Maverick, Charmer, Socialite, Protodog, Einstein, Expert or Renaissance Dog. That can give you something to brag about on Dognition's Facebook page, but it also can shed new light on why dogs do the things they do, or how you can get through to them better. "We've got a bunch of really fantastic trainers who have signed up to help," Hare said.
Researchers get a reward as well: The data from hundreds of Canine Assessment Tests can be correlated with breed, age and other factors. "To collect the amount of data we've taken in during our month-long beta program would have taken us a couple of years," Hare said.
Eventually, Hare and his colleagues hope to map out the substantive cognitive differences between dog breeds — differences that have not yet been studied scientifically. "The reason we don't know anything about breed differences is that we currently don't have the tools available to look at the number of dogs that would allow us to answer the interesting questions," Hare said.
Dognition could fix that. And it also could open up new possibilities for some of humanity's best friends.
"One of the things we're hoping to do is, suppose there's that dog that may not be the most attractive dog physically, but the dog is wonderfully behaved," Hare said. "What Dognition.com can do is help people understand more about what's inside that dog, and not just its physical appearance — and see that, wow, this dog is amazing."
More about dog intelligence:
Dognition offers a $59.95 Canine Assessment Toolkit as well as a $129.95 annual membership bundle that includes enhanced games and other goodies.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.