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February 13, 2013

Slate: A $60 app probes your dog's intellect

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.)

Dognition, launched last week, is essentially an intelligence test for dogs. The brainchild of 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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