When dogs become citizen scientists

17 September 2015
By Jo Kerr.


To help understand what goes on in the mind of man's best friend, five hundred dogs have been recruited as the latest citizen scientists! The results were published this week in PLoS ONE. Red power tie dog

Citizen science is a unique way of researchers gaining a lot of information very quickly, and scientists are now using this technique to help understand the minds of dogs.

Dog owners from around the world used online tutorials to learn seven games which they then played with their pets. The way that the dogs responded to these games helped scientists to understand more about their cognitive skills and problem solving ability.

Contrary to what you may think, dogs were found to rely more on their memory than their sense of smell.

In this specific test, the owner placed a treat under one of two cups while the dog was watching, and the cups were then switched while the dog was distracted. Interestingly, most of the dogs went to where they had seen the food being placed, suggesting that they were prioritising their memory over their sense of smell.

"There is no debate that dogs have incredibly sensitive noses, but...there are lots of cases when dogs will prioritise visual information over olfactory [smell] information", said author Evan Maclean.

This large data set has allowed researchers to show that every dog uses a unique set of cognitive skills in every-day life. Some of the dogs preferred to use their memory, while others used communication or interpreted their owners perspective.

Importantly, data from five of the seven tests corresponds closely with data obtained by scientists within laboratory conditions.

"The answers that we get through citizen science and the answers that we get in the lab differ by one to two percent, so it's amazingly similar!"

Citizen science is therefore an extremely valuable tool for understanding the minds of our domesticated dogs.


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