Citizen Science Goes to the Dogs

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Dog behavioral and cognition studies, like their human counterparts, are often lacking in one thing: numbers. It’s difficult to get as many dogs and owners into the lab as necessary to get really significant results. But what if dog owners could test their pets at home and submit the results to researchers?

According to a new study in the journal PLOS ONE, this type of citizen science could help give dog research a much-needed boost. Experts from Duke University and a company called Canines, Inc. compared data submitted by regular pet owners who perform tests with their dogs to traditional lab-based experiments, and found that the results were more or less equal. 

The study focused on more than 500 citizen scientists who signed up for Volunteers completed questionnaires about their dogs and received instructions for how to perform 10 different cognition tests with their canine friends. They could submit their data on the web from any computer, tablet, or smartphone. Here’s one test they used:

The results submitted replicated the findings of several conventional lab studies on dog cognition, and there was no evidence that the volunteers manipulated the results. This indicates that citizen science initiatives could be a boon for dog studies. After all, it’s much easier to get a large, diverse sample of dogs and their owners by recruiting volunteers on the Internet and letting them perform tests at home. It's also possible that performing the experiments in an environment that’s comfortable for the dogs (the home) provides a more accurate picture of their capabilities than an unfamiliar place like a university cognition lab. 

More than 17,000 dog owners from around the world have signed up to share data with the researchers, compared with the network of 1,000 dog owners who Duke University asks to bring pets into the lab for testing. "They're just games,” as Duke dog researcher Brian Hare, who developed the website, explains of the tests in a press release. “The owners love playing them and the dogs love playing them.” Now go play with your dog for science.