Monday, January 13, 2014

Bella Does Dognition

Bella is a bright little bird.

We have always known that.

We have also always known that she is a champion at coercing people into giving her what she wants. This is probably a trait she used to her advantage on the streets of Puerto Rico where tourists and truckers alike will toss bits of scraps to scavenging pups.

I don't know exactly how to qualify or quantify charm but whatever it is, Bella has it in abundance. No one can touch her and yet everyone falls in love with her. But the truth is, if Bella can't charm you into giving her what she wants, she'll figure out a way to get it herself.

It is this combination of intelligence, personality and fear that has made our life with her a challenge and her psychology an adventure waiting to be discovered. Dr. Dodman explained to us when we first met with him that Bella is exactly the kind of dog that is most likely to have issues with aggression.

Fearful, timid dogs shut down. Non-fearful, confident dogs don't react. Fearful dogs with big personalities and a bit of boldness tend to have the highest level of conflict going on inside of them which they don't know how to control or regulate.

Gaining this little bit of insight into Bella's personality from Dr. D gave us a whole new perspective on her behavior and I would happily spend every waking moment talking to anyone who could give additional information about what is going on in our crazy dog's head. But Dr. Dodman is a busy man and our fortunes don't run quite high enough to pay for his private, 24/7 tutelage.

So when I first heard about 'Dognition', a science-based "personality test" for your dog created by Duke University neuroscientist, Brian Hare, I jumped at the opportunity to sign up. Yes, there is a fee and I know some people balk at this. Since the fee for a year is substantially less than the fee for a single visit with a professional behaviorist, I didn't let that bit of information dissuade me. In for a penny, in for a pound as they say.

Dognition is ............

Dognition is not an IQ test for your dog as some people and the media want to claim it is. I'd liken it more to the Myers-Briggs type indicator test.

Dognition is a series of games or tests that you play with your dog and record the results.

When all the games are complete, the computers at Dognition, take in your information and process it through their algorithms. The profile compiled and sent to you at the end of the tests gives insight into what the results of the specific tests mean about how your dog processes information to make decisions.

Called "Cognitive Dimensions", the games test 5 different aspects of a dog's thinking:
  • Empathy - individualistic vs. bonded,
  • Communication - self-reliant vs. collaborative,
  • Cunning - trustworthy vs. wily, 
  • Memory - present-minded vs. retrospective, and
  • Reasoning - impulsive vs. logical.
The results of each test place your dog's responses on a spectrum. The answers aren't true or false, there are gradations like on a scale from 1 - 10. Then, combining the results from all these areas, Dognition has created a series of 9 'types' ranging from Socialite ("Friend to all") to Star-gazer ("Free spirit") and Maverick ("Lone wolf") to Einstein ("The thinker").

 Bella was deemed an Expert ("Problem solver"). (I'll go into the specifics of her results in another post.)

How'd they do?

There were certainly aspects of the results that just confirmed what we already instinctively knew but I did learn some things about our little wonder dog that I didn't know before.

I read another review that suggested that the information gleaned from the games comes as little surprise. Of course, that review was written by Patricia McConnell, preeminent dog trainer and certified behaviorist so I'll suggest that most ordinary people playing the games won't know their dogs quite as well as she knows hers. Or dogs in general for that matter.

It took us quite some time to finish the tests - this is not something you can or should try to complete in a day. Just like training, I found Bella most enthusiastic about playing the games when we kept the sessions short. I wasn't always sure of the point when doing the games but once we got through and her profile was assessed, certain aspects of what was being tested were made more clear.

For instance, one of the games was about eye contact. You were to ask your dog to "Look" and time how long she would comply before looking away. We've worked with Bella on look extensively so I wasn't too surprised when she did this well and easily with me.

This test was correlated to the "bonded/individual" dimension and even though Bella held my gaze for the longest possible time allotted by the game, she came in on the "Individualistic" side of the coin based on her responses in the other games for the "Empathy" dimension.

Gee, who'da thunk? ;)

Nuture vs. Nature

Bella's responses and results, of course, left me wondering how much training impacts how well a dog complies.

There was one test that had you tell your dog to 'Leave' a treat. Well, Bella of course left it because we have worked long and hard on teaching her that behavior. My boy Beau was never taught such a behavior because we never really needed it. He pretty much stayed out of stuff but if a treat fell on the floor, he was our living, breathing vacuum cleaner.

I'm still not sure how the tests account for what is learned/trained behavior and what is indicative of how the dog thinks. As in the "Empathy" dimension, I suspect it is the results of the entire test that, taken together, create a picture of the thinking style of the individual dog.

Left with a few minor quibbles

There are a few things I didn't like about the process that I would love to see added or changed. For one, you can only test your dog on the games once. I would have been very interested to see if Bella tested differently with me than she did with Jan. Well, let's be serious, of course she would have tested differently. My curiosity lies in how and where she would have tested differently and what it would mean in light of our different relationships.

Another thing I would like to see done differently is the ability to change or at the very least, review the answers you give about your dog when setting up their initial profile. Some of the questions I remember being very black and white, not allowing for any nuance or shades between. For instance, one of the questions asks if your dog always or never gets along with other dogs. Does any dog ever get along with every dog all the time? I wasn't sure how to answer some of the questions in light of Bella's complexities.

And finally, I wish the study had chosen to capture information about whether the dogs taking the test were strays, puppy mill rescues or forever pets. The group, via the Dognition application is collecting a great deal of information that can be analyzed by various segments: large dogs vs. small dogs, herding breeds vs. the toy group, even one breed vs. another. But there is no data point that captures where/how you got your dog so there is no way to analyze strays vs. pets, purchased vs. rescued. I just think this would be an interesting aspect to pursue.


We chose to sign up for a year which gives us access to additional tests and some of the data collected by this adventure in citizen science. It has been fun and gives us something to do together as a family that keeps Bella's interest especially on these long, dark winter nights when we're all stuck inside.

Disclosure: This is not a solicited review. We signed up and paid for Dognition. I am just sharing this information because I find it fascinating and hope some readers may be interested in hearing about our experience with it.


  1. What an interesting study! I'm curious to hear how the rest of it turns out for you.

  2. This was really interesting to read. Both of our guys are complex and I'd love to try this. I'm glad you compared it to the Myers Briggs - that makes it even more interesting to me. I mayhave to give it a try.

  3. We have heard about this program and wondered about it. Nice to hear about it. Lee and Phod

  4. That sounds super interesting. I think if we were a one dog family, Mom would sign up, but for three of us, probably not. It would be wonderful to know these things so Mom could understand us a bit better.

  5. Wow, that's really interesting. I will have to go check that out. I find those types of things so interesting. It will be fun to see what else you learn along the way.

  6. Very interesting program! I've never heard of it before, but I'm definitely interested to hear more. I agree with your comments - it's too bad they're not tracking puppy origins as well (rescue, vs registered breeder, vs pet store, vs backyard breeder). It's also too bad you can't test your dog a few times in different locations/with different owners and submit an average. Just like anything, dogs aren't all-or-nothing, and so many variables can influence behaviour, including weather and time of day.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to review this so thoroughly. I read Brian Hare's book and was super curious about how the process and testing would work. I'm really excited to see the specifics of her results in your next post! (Incidentally, our foster dog Molly's face reminds me so much of Bella's! Not identical, but similar enough that I thought of Bella the day Molly came home with us!)

  8. I have read many reviews of Dognition and am still very curious. After finding out that Patricia McConnell was not a huge fan I put it out of my mind. But I'd still love to try it out myself. Do you think it's worth the cost?

  9. I have never heard of Dognition before, but now I am super curious about it. The fact that the results convinced you to buy a year's membership is very interesting. I'm really looking forward tot he next post, Leslie. Thank you for sharing this.

    I do agree that it kind of (really) sucks that you can't repeat the tests situationally. Anyone with a reactive dog knows that the dog tested in the ideal environment/setting is a very different dog than a dog actively spazzing out.

    The whole thing is a bit pricey for two dogs and I'm a bit nervous about Felix, who has legit few learned skills, so I'm pretty sure his impulse control etc is a 0 score. (I'm yet to discover his "currency" to make him want to work.), but I really like the idea a whole lot. It's a neat concept.

  10. I've been wanting to try this ever since I first heard about it. My only problem is some of the games or assessments require two people. I am only one. :(

  11. We bought Dognition about 6 months ago for our Molly - she was an expert as well, and sounds a lot like Bella when it comes to the big personality + fearful combo! I agree with you that the tests didn't tell me a ton I didn't already know, but the monthly games & trainer tips (which also usually have an accompanying game/training) have been a life saver on days when we can't get outside. Like you, we also did extensive work with Stay and Leave so it doesn't really take that into consideration.

  12. Mel, if your dog has been trained in Sit & Stay, you can do it by yourself. I have done almost every test by myself while my husband sits on the couch lol!

  13. Hey Kristine, for us it was worth the cost. I can't say it would be for everyone. Like Kathy mentions in a comment above - the monthly games have been great to do when the weather is bad or especially when Bella was on "restricted activity" due to her shoulder injury.

  14. Hi Kathy! Thanks for saying hello and for sharing the info about your Molly. (I'd love to see a picture of her. If you're on Facebook, feel free to share one on Bella's Facebook page: )

    I heartily agree about the monthly games and trainer tip! Bella hurt her shoulder last year and she was on restricted activity in the winter and I thought I was going to lose my mind until we started doing the games. It was just enough to keep her curious and stave off that boredom for a little while.

  15. Maggie, how do I not know you have a foster dog? (Pictures please?) And beyond that - how on earth ARE you fostering a dog with your canine crew and kitty, too!? You're a little bit crazy, aren't you?

    I hinted a bit about Bella's results here in this post - mainly that I wished they had included a stray/feral/family pet category in their profiles. Bella's results point to why she survived 5 months on her own on the streets of Puerto Rico. The way she thinks made that possible.

  16. Hi Jen!

    We signed up for Dognition very early. I suspect they will make changes along the way as they're finding their way and figuring things out. They could always go back and add the "origins" question to their existing data. They may yet.

    (As a computer programmer, I really feel like I missed my calling now - I should be building their database/reports. I love big data and I love to make order out of chaos - this would be my dream job. :)