Dog Owners Helping Scientists with Research

Everyday dog owners are helping scientists study what goes on inside the mind of a canine.

The owners, 500 in all, from around the world, contributed to research that was published in PLoS ONE.

While at home with their pets, the owners played the same games that researchers use in the laboratory to find out about a dog’s cognitive skills and problem-solving.

On five of the seven tests analyzed, citizen science data corresponded closely to what had been produced by labs at Duke University and elsewhere.

For example, in one of the game-like tests, dogs were found to rely more on their memory than their sense of smell to find a hidden treat. The dogs watched as their owner hid food under one of two cups. Then while the dog’s vision was obscured, the owner switched the food to the other cup.

If dogs could smell the food, they should have been able to choose the correct cup, but owners found that most dogs went to where they last saw the food.

The data were collected through a website called that was developed by Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke who studies primate and dog cognition.

“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.”

According to MacLean, the memory-over-smell result has been replicated in seven different research groups and more than a dozen different studies. “Most people think dogs use their sense of smell for everything,” MacLean said. “But actually dogs use a whole range of senses when solving problems.”

Hare said these kinds of findings are only possible with the big data sets that citizen scientists are able to generate.

“‘So much is possible when you have this much data,” Hare said. “I’m looking forward to dog owners answering all the big questions that have puzzled scientists for decades.”


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