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February 18, 2013

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

(Continued)

After you finish the quizzes and games in Dognition, your results beam into Durham, get knocked through several algorithms, and come back to you in the form of a 15-page report on the intricacies of Benjy's cognitive style. It sounds enthralling. But — "No IQ score?" I asked Hare on the phone. He explained that dog intelligence, like human, is fluid and non-hierarchal. (He doesn't think people should get IQ scores, either.) You can't slap a number on a canine forehead or arrange pooches along a continuum from the Aristotles to the dropouts.

What you can do is suss out your pup's "mental strategy." Take one of the games in the Dognition playbook. Two cups are placed upside down on the floor. One has a morsel of food under it — and your dog knows it, because you've just lifted the rim up to show him. But then you let go of his collar and point to the cup without the food. If Benjy is primarily empathic, he trusts you and will follow your finger. If he relies on memory to make decisions, chances are he'll gravitate toward the cup with the treat.

This could help you finally solve some of your canine's behavioral problems. "One-size-fits-all training ignores the fact that dogs are individuals," Hare says. "Trainers could use Dognition to give owners tailored recommendations." Like what? He invites me to imagine a hypothetical puppy that doesn't seem to be catching onto basic commands. Perhaps, rather than being dim, she's a cunning operator who obeys orders only when she thinks her owner's watching (i.e., once the front door slams, chewing on the couch leg is fair game). Knowing such details about your dog might help you sympathize, design a better teaching program, and ultimately not end up resentful and with no furniture.

On the other hand, veterinarian Sarah Bowman of Washington D.C.'s City Paws Animal Hospital doubts that pet owners need a pricey program like Dognition to sniff out basic facts about their four-legged friends. "If your dog is a socialite or loves to have a job to do," she says, "you've probably already noticed that."

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