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Profiles give glimpse into dogs' brains

Dog owners might not be crazy when they claim their favorite pet is smart.

A Durham-based company is working to pinpoint dogs’ unique cognitive skill sets, using science to prove dogs’ mental capacity.

Dognition — founded by Brian Hare, a professor at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University — is designed to put a dog through a series of tests to determine its cognitive profile to show what strategy a dog uses to solve problems, whether it’s through communication or memory.

“We assume all dogs are smart, there is no right answer,” Hare said.

“It is trying to find out what type of dog you have. The question is: what strategy does your dog use?”

It costs a dog owner $39 to procure a cognitive profile from Dognition.

Kip Frey, CEO of Dognition, said that amount is comparable to a bag of high-end dog food.

In the book “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think,” Hare and his wife, Duke research scientist Vanessa Woods, theorize dogs’ mental capacity began to change once they became domesticated.

Woods co-founded Dognition with her husband.

“Friendlier dogs had an advantage over dogs that were not so friendly, and this completely changed their psychology, so that humans and dogs have formed this incredible bond,” Woods said.

“Dogs are just really amazing at reading our communicative gestures in a way that our other relatives, like chimpanzees and other great apes, can’t do.”

Dogs’ ability to communicate with humans is remarkable, and they learn much like human infants do, Woods said.

“That is what Dognition is all about — trying to help people understand what cognition is, so that they understand their own dog better,” Hare said.

The Dognition website also collects the data it gathers, so individual users can learn about their dog from the application of tests.

That information is later shared with a broader audience to create a greater understanding of dogs.

Hare said this data collection is helping break down persisting breed stereotypes, and is already being used to help people find and adopt dogs.

Potential dog owners can also use Dognition to determine what type of dog they want, based on qualities like empathy or communication.

That fundamental sentiment — that owners want to know who their dog actually is — is paying off, as the company has already gained thousands of subscribers since it launched in February, Frey said.

But Hare said the goal is to be in the range of tens of thousands of users, so Dognition can expand the scope of its scientific data.

“The funny way to say it is that there is someone sleeping in your bed that you don’t even know,” Hare said.

“I have played the games with my dogs and it was really fun because basically I didn’t know the dog I was living with.”

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