Startups begin with the big idea – “Let’s allow everyone to put up their videos – cats and all – and call it YouTube”; “Let’s get everybody communicating in 140 characters or less”; “What if everyone had every question on every subject answered through a search engine?” – but no one really knows if his or her big idea is going to gain traction. Take Dognition as an example of an idea that is a little left of center and definitely growing: On its website, pet owners can subscribe to get assessments of their dogs’ intelligence, empathy, special skills and much more – discovered through interactive, science-based games.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Dr. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke and director of the Canine Cognition Center, says, “all dogs have their own unique genius, just like people. … Different dogs use different strategies to solve problems and navigate through the world,” he says. For example, Dr. Hare asks, “Does your dog rely on you to solve problems, or are they more independent? Do they pay attention to where you are looking before they decide to sneak food off the coffee table, or are they just king of the household and don’t feel the need for any sneakiness?” Dognition’s games help to answer these questions, leading to a dog’s profile as either an ace, charmer, socialite, expert, renaissance dog, protodog, Einstein, maverick or stargazer.
The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us.
“There is no such thing as ‘smart’ dogs and ‘dumb’ dogs,” Dr. Hare says. “Different dogs are good at different things. The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us. Rest assured – she is a genius.”
On top of teaching owners about their furry friends, Dognition is also making discoveries about the species in general – collecting data to contribute to a citizen science project that helps further canine research. “Dogs are now being used as a medical model for humans,” Dr. Hare says, “so the output of our research has major implications for human health. It’s an incredibly exciting project, and I can’t wait to see what we find out!”
“Our goal is to become an integral part of the canine research scientific community as well as the everyday experience people have with their dogs,” says Dognition President and CEO Kip Frey.
And even though the project is now scaling, the folks at Dognition are thankful for the company’s Durham roots.
“Durham is definitely a community of dog lovers,” Dr. Hare says, “When we first opened the Canine Cognition Center, we had more than 1,000 people sign up.” And Dognition has never been low on volunteers to help test games or film videos. “The people of Durham love their dogs and are curious about them,” he says, “Dognition has had great support here.” And the Bull City’s entrepreneurship community has proved to be a solid source of support as well. “Being part of both the Duke University and Durham business communities is a huge asset to our business, because we can take advantage of the knowledge and talent in both.”
Number of dogs signed up, as of October: 20,000 – “which is a dream in terms of the science,” Dr. Hare says, “as a researcher, I could maybe test 100 dogs for a study in the lab – now we can answer questions we could never answer before because of the large sample size.”
Most popular dog names include Lucy, Bella, Charlie, Molly and Max.
Most common dog profile is the socialite.
The trickiest Dognition trick? “The inferential reasoning game is probably the hardest,” says Dr. Hare. “It’s when you hide a ball in one of two cups, then just show your dog the empty cup and see if they can infer where the ball is hidden.”
Path to profitability? Moving forward, Dognition plans to invest more in marketing, “with the intention of selling large numbers of Dognition assessments and annual memberships,” Kip says.
Price: One-time assessment, $19; yearly subscription, $79; or monthly price of $9/month + $19 one-time fee.