A $60 App Promises To Tell You How Smart Your Dog Is

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 8 2013 3:35 PM

A $60 App Promises To Tell You How Smart Your Dog Is

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"As for the transcendental unity of apperception..."

Photo by BORIS HEGER/AFP/Getty Images

Sixty dollars! 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 toward water pipes with intellectual prowess.)

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Dognition, launched this past Tuesday, is essentially an intelligence test for dogs. The brainchild of Dr. Brian Hare, an anthropology professor and director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, it consists of assessment questions (e.g. “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. Nor are they just an opportunity for you to brag that your dog is smarter than your neighbors’ mutt: The data gathered by the app flow into Duke University, where it will be analyzed 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.” 

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After you finish the quizzes and games in Dognition, your results beam into Durham, 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 Hare on the phone. 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 toward the cup with the treat.  

This could help you finally solve some of your canine’s behavioral problems. “One-size-fits-all training ignores the fact that dogs are individuals,” Hare says. “Trainers could use Dognition to give owners tailored recommendations.” Like what? He invites me to imagine a hypothetical puppy that doesn’t seem to be catching onto basic commands. Perhaps, rather than being dim, she’s a cunning operator who obeys orders only when she thinks her owner’s watching (i.e., once the front door slams, chewing on the couch leg is fair game). Knowing such details about your dog might help you sympathize, design a better teaching program, and ultimately not end up resentful and with no furniture.

On the other hand, veterinarian Sarah Bowman of Washington D.C.’s City Paws Animal Hospital doubts that pet owners need a pricey program like Dognition to sniff out basic facts about their four-legged friends. “If your dog is a socialite or loves to have a job to do,” she says, “you’ve probably already noticed that.” Yet the app can still give pooches and their human caregivers fun tasks to bond over. “Even if the information it provides doesn’t change how you see your dog, there’s nothing wrong with another excuse to play and interact,” she says.  

But is that worth $60? Like Lumosity and other brain-honing apps, Dognition set its (admittedly steep) price in part to cover the costs of creating the website and in part because … well, they could. You don’t need to study neuroscience at Duke to know that otherwise responsible people morph into profligate wastrels when it comes to their pets. Hare points out that a typical bag of dog food costs $50 and a good chew toy can sell for more than $70. (A bad chew toy, meanwhile, will empty both your wallet and your tear ducts.) No bones about it: If you seek sublime intellectual communion with your pooch, be prepared to shell out.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.