Afew weeks ago, 60 Minutes ran a segment on Chaser, a border collie who knows more than a thousand nouns. The show posited that dogs might be smarter than we believe—for instance, dogs will take a cue when a human points at an object, while a monkey will ignore you and just keep on masturbating. Dr. Brian Hare, one of the experts interviewed by 60 Minutes, runs a website called Dognition that purports to measure your dog’s intelligence. I decided to sign up one of my dogs and find out how much (if any) brainpower lurks inside that furry skull.
The Dognition program assesses your dog’s responses in five different areas, including empathy and memory. But the first test concerns the owner, who is required to cough up $19 for the tests. Credit card charged, I confirmed I’m dumb enough to pay $19 to “get beyond ‘woof,’ ” as the site optimistically proclaims. I enrolled Manny, our flat-coat retriever mutt, to find out if he can give Chaser a run for the title of Smartest Dog in the World.
When you first register, Dognition offers a dropdown menu with a selection of treacly questions intended to help define your animal. For instance: “What is your dog’s unique genius?” (Rolling in dead animals?) Or “My dog is a hero because…” (He stops humping his bed when I yell at him?) I chose to answer a question about where my dog got his name.
Unfortunately, this particular moniker is an object lesson on why you don’t name your dog after professional athletes—because the namesake might test positive for a woman’s fertility drug, get suspended for 50 games and ultimately fizzle out of the league. I guess it could’ve been worse. Be careful what you name your dog, lest you find yourself yelling, “Time for din-din, Ray Rice!” for the next 10 years.
The first Dognition test concerned empathy and Manny’s ability to maintain eye contact. In his case, that’s “eye” singular, since he only has one good eye. The other is filled with an iridescent cataract, which led my 4-year-old to declare it “Manny’s bad-guy eye.” The test directs you to stand there holding a dog treat under your right eye to find out how long your dog will maintain eye contact, but I don’t have any dog treats. Thus I ended up standing there with a Ritz cracker in front of my eye, staring at my dog and wondering what I’m doing with my life. Manny, for his part, didn’t break eye contact, leading the Dognition software to tell me, “Manny’s empathy scores were off the charts.” Either that or he really wanted a Ritz.
The next game assessed Manny’s ability to follow a pointing gesture. But first Dognition flashed an ominous message, warning that “Our system can detect and flag false data entry.” Why the threat, Dognition? Is anyone trying to cook their Dognition profile to fraudulently inflate their dog’s resale value? It’s not a Harvard transcript, people.
Manny turned out to be great with the pointing game, leading the program to declare that “Manny is remarkably like a human infant, who start reading communicative gestures at around 9 months old.” I’m sure they mean that to be cute, but think about it: the brain of an infant, the bite strength of a carnivorous woodland predator. And this thing lives in your house.
Subsequent tests focused on traits like memory and cunning. I had to improvise on these, because you’re supposed to have two people involved—one to hold the dog and one to set up the experiments. My wife, Heather, flatly declared that she had better things to do than engage in amateur canine intelligence research. So I had to lead Manny to his starting position, generally about four feet away, and get him to stay there until I’d set up the test, whatever it was. This led to a few impasses because I’d told him to stay, but at some point you’ve got to start a timer or otherwise get moving on whatever psychological manipulation you’ve got planned. So he’d be sitting there drooling, staring at a cracker, while I’m going, “OK, Manny, let’s go! Experiment time! Get over here and figure out which cup has a treat. Now. Go get it. Get the treat. Getthetreatgetthetreat. Don’t stay. Participate. Do something.”
Oddly, his obedience was screwing up the tests. But perhaps his lack of gusto had to do with the fact that I’d switched to Goldfish for the treats because I didn’t want him eating a whole sleeve of Ritz crackers. Maybe he was protesting the wage cut.
Ultimately, we got through all the tests, and Dognition spit out its report. It turns out that Manny’s got great memory and communication skills, and he’s actually more trustworthy than I thought. Now is it too late to start calling him Brady?