Startup Dognition promises to help you better understand your dog

dranii@newsobserver.comNovember 16, 2012 

  • The Dognition Experience Dognition’s Canine Assessment Toolkit – yes, these sly dogs have slipped in a CAT – will include about two hours of “science-based games” for your dog and a questionnaire. “It’s the Myers Briggs test for dogs,” said Rick French, owner and CEO of Raleigh communications firm French/West/Vaughan, which is handling PR for the Durham startup and also has purchased an ownership stake in the business. The games, which don’t have to be completed in one sitting, include a series of tests – such as determining whether your dog yawns when you do or remembers where food is hidden. The first tests for empathy; the second measures memory. Communication, cunning and reasoning also are measured. “You’re guided in those interactions by video instructions and verbal instructions and diagrams of what to do,” said CEO Kip Frey. Submit the results over the Internet and within minutes you’ll receive a “personality profile” that details your dog’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. It also will include recommendations. For example, a report on a dog named Ambrose offers these insights about his cunningness: “Since Ambrose probably demonstrates selective obedience from time to time, if it is really important that Ambrose obey (crossing the road, not ambushing the Thanksgiving turkey), Ambrose should know that you are watching him and paying close attention to his every move. If you need to turn your back or leave the room, make sure the object of temptation is well out of the way. There are also simple techniques that can improve obedience – a trainer can help you with these, but make sure they know about Ambrose’s cunning scores and that Ambrose is no fool.” Dog owners who purchase the test also will be able to become monthly subscribers – for a small fee – to dognition.com and receive additional scientific games and access to Dognition data. Frey envisions that Chihuahua owners will be able to compare how their dog stacks up to other Chihuahuas, and how Chihuahuas compare to other breeds of small dogs. Sign up for beta testing at dognition.com; but not everyone who signs up will be invited to participate. Staff writer David Ranii

— A Duke University scientist, a successful local entrepreneur and the Triangle’s largest advertising agency have joined forces on a new venture that boasts it can strengthen the relationships between dog owners and their pets.

Dog lovers who avail themselves of the company’s service, which will be available over the Internet, will double as “citizen scientists” who contribute to our understanding of how man’s best friends think – that is, canine cognition.

Hence the name of the company: Dognition.

“I want to understand more about animal psychology and how we can help dogs have richer lives,” said Brian Hare, co-founder and chief scientific officer.

Hare is an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology at Duke and founder and director of the university’s Canine Cognition Center. He’s also the co-author, along with his wife, science journalist Vanessa Woods, of the upcoming book, “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think.” It’s being published Feb. 5 by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

Dognition is based on the premise that engaging in what the company calls “science-based games” can give dog owners new insights into their pets’ behavior and bolster their relationships. If, for example, you discover that your beloved Butterball responds better to gestures than verbal commands, or vice-versa, you can adjust your communication accordingly.

That’s the practical side of things, but there’s an emotional component as well. The founders of Dognition stress that people love their dogs and want to understand how they think, just as they want to know what makes their children or spouse tick.

Test your dog

Dognition plans to offer an assessment test, available over the Internet – including an app for your smartphone – that dog owners can administer to determine their dogs’ cognitive strengths and weaknesses and uncover new strategies for human-pet interaction. Each customer will receive a “Dognition Profile” report.

The company plans to start free beta testing Monday and launch to the public in January. The likely cost will be in the $40 to $60 range.

“We have done a lot of research around pricing, and that price is not an impediment to people wanting to do this,” said CEO Kip Frey.

Indeed, Dognition is going after one of the few markets that has proved to be recession-proof. The American Pet Product Association reports that spending on pets has risen 4.8 percent or more in recent years and projects that spending will rise 3.7 percent to $52.87 billion this year.

The collective data that Dognition accumulate also hold the promise of expanding our scientific understanding of dogs, Hare said. Academic centers such as the one he leads at Duke only have the capacity to test a few hundred dogs a year, so opening up such tests to dog owners worldwide via the Internet has the scientist practically drooling.

“We’re going to make amazing discoveries,” he said.

In addition to Hare, the prime movers behind Dognition are:

• Serial entrepreneur Frey. He previously ran OpenSite Technologies, which fetched $542 million when it was sold in 2000. He was also a venture capitalist at Intersouth Partners in Durham and president of Accipiter, an Internet startup that sold in 1998 for stock valued at $35 million. But he’s not infallible. The last startup he headed, business software company EvoApp, folded in July.

• McKinney, the largest ad agency in the Triangle with 220 employees and a client roster that includes Travelocity and Nationwide Insurance. The agency’s contributions to Dognition include market research, marketing and brand development, and designing the look and feel and user experience of its website. McKinney, which has an ownership stake in Dognition, also is housing the eight-employee company at its offices at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham.

McKinney CEO Brad Brinegar, who owns three dogs – Stormy, Happy and Lamb – said that going all-in on this particular start-up was “an absolute no-brainer.”

“I wake up every morning and think, ‘This is going to be big,’ ” Brinegar said.

It’s certainly appealing to a big market: The company says there are about 100 million households with dogs worldwide, including 50 million in the United States.

Canine intelligence

At the heart of Dognition is the recent explosion in the scientific understanding of dogs’ thought processes.

For a long time, the prevailing opinion in the scientific community was that dogs were relatively dim bulbs and, if you really wanted to study animal intelligence, you needed to focus on dolphins or apes. But studies conducted over the past 15 years have shown otherwise.

“Dogs are more sophisticated than even the most dedicated dog lover might imagine,” Hare said.” Actually dogs, in many ways, solve problems really similarly to human children. And they’re more similar to human children than … apes.”

Frey believes the key to Dognition’s success is touting its scientific underpinning. That’s especially so, he added, because the Web already offers “cutesy dog games sites” and sites featuring “doggie I.Q. tests.”

To underscore the company’s scientific approach, Hare recruited a five-person scientific advisory board that includes prominent academics in the field of animal behavior from universities around the world, including Harvard and Yale.

Even for a startup, Dognition is moving fast. The company didn’t exist until September, which is when Frey raised $1 million in funding from angel investors. Frey, an old hand at attracting investment dollars, was surprised how quickly it came together.

“There are certain things where people say, ‘Why didn’t anyone think of this before?’ ” Frey said. “This could be one of those things.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service