Dognition aims to profit from TV special

Brian Hare, a Duke University professor, is co-founder and chief scientific officer at Dognition.
Brian Hare, a Duke University professor, is co-founder and chief scientific officer at Dognition. Dognition

Dognition, a startup that has fashioned a business out of helping people understand their dogs better, anticipates that a trio of hourlong TV specials hosted by the Duke University professor who co-founded the company will trigger a major influx of customers.

The “Is Your Dog A Genius?” specials will air in the 10 p.m. time slot on three consecutive nights – Friday, May 15, through Sunday, May 17 – on the Nat Geo Wild channel.

Host Brian Hare, the chief science officer at Dognition, co-authored “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think,” a New York Times best-seller, along with his wife, science journalist Vanessa Woods. Hare is an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology at Duke and founder of the university’s Canine Cognition Center.

Durham-based Dognition hopes the specials will be popular enough to persuade Nat Geo Wild to pick up its option for a series. Dognition CEO Kip Frey, a serial entrepreneur, said the company also plans to put the shows at the center of its efforts to raise in the neighborhood of $5 million in new funding.

At the outset of the first special, the narrator intones: “Let’s peer inside the canine mind along with Dr. Brian Hare and his team of researchers. They’ve developed a series of science-based games you can play with your dog to help you understand what his behavior is telling you.”

Those games, the Dognition Assessment, are at the center of Dognition’s business. Available over the Internet, including an app for your smartphone, for $19 per dog, the games are designed to determine a dog’s strengths and weaknesses and uncover new strategies for working with them.

The TV specials are not in any way infomercials. In fact, there’s no mention of Dognition the company.

But Dognition the test is highlighted. Frey is confident that will be enough for any viewer inspired to search for Dognition on the Internet.

“There’s no other word like Dognition,” Frey said. “People find us without any problem whatsoever.”

Dognition has been selling its tests since February, 2013, but up to now it has relied solely on media coverage to get the word out.

To date the company has sold more than 15,000 Dognition Assessments. In addition, 35 percent of those who purchase the assessments also sign up to become Dognition members, for an additional $5 or more per month, entitling them to extras such as new games and activities tailored to their dog.

But with the TV specials about to air and the possibility that a series will follow, Dognition plans to unleash an advertising and marketing campaign to capitalize on the exposure. Much of the new funding the company hopes to raise, on top of $1.5 million it previously attracted from angel investors, will go toward that effort, Frey said.

Although Hare has numerous TV interviews under his belt, he was gratified by his ability to shape the “Is Your Dog A Genius?” shows. Hare, Frey and Woods are consulting producers to the specials.

“What was different about this opportunity was that we got to have a lot of input upfront,” Hare said. “If you’re a scientist, one of the hardest things is that you want to be on the PBS special and explain your science, but the producers already know what they want you to say. That can be really frustrating.”

Among the highlights for Hare, who exudes enthusiasm on the show and in person, was working with a pair of dogs from the Durham County Sheriff’s K-9 unit.

“I’ve been with a drug-sniffing dog, but I’d never seen one work,” Hare said.

For Hare, recruiting new Dognition customers isn’t only about the benefits to the business. That’s because each customer doubles as a “citizen scientist” who can help advance our understanding of how man’s best friends think. Their data becomes fodder for scientific research.

“Each person is learning about their own dog as they contribute to the greater good,” Hare said.

Hare and his colleagues recently completed a scientific paper, which will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, that took Dognition-generated data compiled from the first 500 customers and compared it to scientific literature.

“What we found is that the citizen data is very meaningful,” Hare said. “It’s useful.”

Proving that, Hare said, opens the way for Dognition to conduct innovative research on a scale that previously wasn’t possible. In addition, the company will make its data available free to other scientists.

“Science is about answering questions,” Hare said. “We can answer a ton of questions (that couldn’t be answered before) because we have tons of data.”

For example, there are 200 breeds, Hare said. “If you want to know about breed differences, you’re going to have to have 30 to 50 dogs per breed – just to do one comparison.

“The reason that no one has ever done that before is because nobody has had the ability in any conventional scientific laboratory or center to do that,” he continued. “We can do that in a weekend here.”