Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Understanding man's best friend

New business venture aims to offer dog owners insights into their pets' thinking, behaviour

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DURHAM, N.C. -- A new venture boasts it can strengthen the relationships between dog owners and their pets.

Dog lovers who avail themselves of the company's service, which will be available over the Internet, will double as "citizen scientists" who contribute to our understanding of how man's best friends think -- that is, canine cognition.

Hence the name of the company: Dognition.

A Duke University scientist, an entrepreneur and a large advertising agency have joined forces to create the venture.

"I want to understand more about animal psychology and how we can help dogs have richer lives," said Brian Hare, co-founder and chief scientific officer.

Hare is an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology at Duke and founder and director of the university's Canine Cognition Center. He's also the co-author, along with his wife, science journalist Vanessa Woods, of the upcoming book, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. It's being published Feb. 5 by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

Dognition is based on the premise that engaging in what the company calls "science-based games" can give dog owners new insights into their pets' behaviour and bolster their relationships. If, for example, you discover that your beloved Butterball responds better to gestures than verbal commands, or vice-versa, you can adjust your communication accordingly.

That's the practical side of things, but there's an emotional component as well. The founders of Dognition stress that people love their dogs and want to understand how they think, just as they want to know what makes their children or spouse tick.

Dognition plans to offer an assessment test, available over the Internet -- including an app for your smartphone -- that dog owners can administer to determine their dogs' cognitive strengths and weaknesses and uncover new strategies for human-pet interaction. Each customer will receive a "Dognition Profile" report.

The company has started free beta testing and plans to launch to the public in January. The likely cost will be in the US$40 to $60 range.

"We have done a lot of research around pricing, and that price is not an impediment to people wanting to do this," said CEO Kip Frey.

Indeed, Dognition is going after one of the few markets that has proved to be recession-proof. The American Pet Product Association reports that spending on pets has risen 4.8 per cent or more in recent years and projects that spending will rise 3.7 per cent to $52.87 billion this year.

The collective data that Dognition accumulates also hold the promise of expanding our scientific understanding of dogs, Hare said. Academic centres such as the one he leads at Duke only have the capacity to test a few hundred dogs a year, so opening up such tests to dog owners worldwide via the Internet has the scientist practically drooling.

"We're going to make amazing discoveries," he said.

-- The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Canine intelligence

At the heart of Dognition is the recent explosion in the scientific understanding of dogs' thought processes.

For a long time, the prevailing opinion in the scientific community was that dogs were relatively dim bulbs and, if you really wanted to study animal intelligence, you needed to focus on dolphins or apes. But studies conducted over the past 15 years have shown otherwise.

"Dogs are more sophisticated than even the most dedicated dog lover might imagine," Hare said." Actually dogs, in many ways, solve problems really similarly to human children. And they're more similar to human children than... apes."

Frey believes the key to Dognition's success is touting its scientific underpinning. That's especially so, he added, because the web already offers "cutesy dog games sites" and sites featuring "doggie IQ tests."

To underscore the company's scientific approach, Hare recruited a five-person scientific advisory board that includes prominent academics in the field of animal behaviour from universities around the world, including Harvard and Yale.

Even for a startup, Dognition is moving fast. The company didn't exist until September, which is when it raised $1 million in funding from angel investors. Frey, an old hand at attracting investment dollars, was surprised how quickly it came together.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2012 D5

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