Could your dog be a scientist?

Dogs and their owners are being recruited as citizen scientists.
21 September 2015

Interview with 

Evan Maclean, Duke University


Dog scientist


Dogs have become citizen scientists this week! Citizen science is way for Dog scientistresearchers to collect lots of data quickly and cost effectively, by asking members of the public to do it for them. Now, Evan Maclean is using this approach to get inside the minds of domestic dogs by asking owners, like our own Joanna Kerr, to set them simple tests and send him the results...

Evan - So in this game, you would show the dog a piece of food and you would hide it in one of two places in front of them. So visually, they've seen where the food is but then you distract the dog and you move that piece of food over to another location. And then you very simply give them a choice between the two locations and then in terms of where they want to search. So, if dogs rely on their memory, they should search where they saw the object disappear but if their sense of smell that's driving their behaviour, then they would search for the food in it and its new location just basically using their nose to solve the problem. What we find in that context is something that surprises a lot of people which is their dogs aren't actually using their nose in this context. They're using their vision and their memory and they tend to search where they saw the food last.

Jo - I couldn't wait to go home and try this, so I've roped my boyfriend in to see what our dog does when we put her through this test. "Do you want to try this? Come on then...Can you now distract her for a bit while I switch this over? Okay, go! There's nothing there." We tried this three times and each time, she went to where she'd see me put the treats, not where she could clearly smell if she wanted to where it has actually gone.

Evan - There is no debate that dogs have incredibly sensitive noses but what we find is that actually, dogs rely on other senses very much and there are lots of cases where dogs will prioritise visual information over olfactory information.

Jo - Do you know why that might be?

Evan - If you think about vision and olfaction, olfaction is a great sense for trying to sort of put together the past when there's no immediate clues about the way the environment is. But if you're in the present moment, there's nothing better than vision.

Jo - Yeah, so suppose it does sort of seem as though they're thinking along the same lines as what we would as humans.

Evan - That's right. If we only had that sense of smell, I think we probably behave in similar ways.

Jo - How did the citizen science results compare with your lab experiments?

Evan - This was the main thing that we wanted to look at in this paper because I think the concern that everybody had was, well sure, we can ask all these dog owners to play these games, but they're probably going to be making up their data. They're probably going to be doing things to try and make their dog look good. We've had questionnaires about people that sign up for dog experiments. For every dog that gets signed up, the people think they're in the 99 per centile. So, we know there's a real bias in terms of people's perceptions of their own dogs. What we found is that actually, the data are incredibly comparable and then surprisingly so. So, the answers that we get through Citizen Science and the answers that we get in the lab differ by one to two percentage points, so it's amazingly similar.


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