Researcher Crowdsources Doting Dog Owners for Canine Insights

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By Maggie Fox

All that energy people put into posting YouTube videos of their clever — or dumb — dogs can be harnessed for the good of scientific research.

A team at Duke University found that dog owners could competently test their pets at home for studies on canine intelligence. They were even happy to pay for the privilege, providing an unorthodox source of funding for the research.

Their reward: They got to find out where their own pet stacked up compared to other dogs.

"We saw that people did a great job," said Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke who helped lead the study.

"The data these dog owners are producing is quality data."

His team’s analysis of 500 people showed they did research that met the standards for scientific research.

More than 17,000 dog owners around the world have signed up through Dognition and are sharing their data.

"The data these dog owners are producing is quality data," said Evan MacLean, a senior research scientist at Duke and co-director of the Canine Cognition Center. "It matches the results we see coming out of the top research groups all over the world."

One experiment asks the owner to test whether dogs remember where a treat was hidden, or whether they use their noses to sniff out where it is.

Others test a dog’s working memory, their use of eye contact to bond with owners, or their empathy.

Hare got a surprise when he tested his dog, Tasmania.

"When we play the eye contact game he is really at the extreme of making eye contact. That was something I really didn’t know," Hare told NBC News.

"We played some memory games. He doesn’t really rely on working memory so much. So when I say 'stay' and he walks off, I have a different feeling about it now. I’m not like, 'You’re so disobedient.' I’m, like, 'Awww, he wandered off again.'”

“He’s adorable. I totally love him. He has a different type of smartness.”

Like any dog lover, Hare gets a little defensive about his own. "It’s not whether he is smart. He was off the charts with bonding. He has a different type of smarts than other dogs," he said.

"He’s adorable. I totally love him. He has a different type of smartness," Hare said.

The findings so far show that some dogs have better memories while others rely on their owners for cues, the researchers report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

Next up: they’ll look at differences by breed.

"There are hundreds of breeds, so to look at anything with breed you have to have thousands and thousands of dogs. Now we finally have them," Hare said.

He even grudgingly agreed it might be useful to look at other pets.

"If we have enough cat lovers getting excited about it, why not?"