DURHAM – A dog watches as a treat is placed under one of two cups on the floor. The dog is made to wait. The dog is released. The question is: Does the dog remember which cup the treat is under?
That’s one of the “games” included in the website Dognition.com’s dog personality and cognitive assessment. The Durham-based company Canines Inc. plans to release the website to the public in January.
The site includes videos that show the user how to carry out a series of “games,” or cognitive tests, as well as a questionnaire.
Using the tests and questionnaire responses, the site categorize dogs into one of nine profiles, such as “Stargazer,” “Einstein,” “Socialite,” or “Charmer.”
A beta version of Dognition.com has been released to a limited number of people to allow the company to work out some of the site’s kinks.
The public release is slated for January, prior to the February publication of the book, “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think” by Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and the director of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center, and his wife, writer Vanessa Woods.
Previously, dogs were considered “unremarkable,” Hare said. Researchers spent a lot of time studying primates. But he said dogs, which are genetically similar to wolves, are every place you’ll find humans.
“Dogs have more jobs than ever,” he added, as bomb sniffers and bed bug detectors. “If they’re so unremarkable, how are they doing this?” he added.
Their genius, Hare said, is in their ability to read social human gestures
“They actively evolved to be more like us – to be more like human infants,” he said.
Hare said the book catches readers up on discoveries about dog intelligence, and why dogs are “remarkable.”
Alternatively, the website is being launched to let people learn more about their own dogs’ personalities and intelligence.
For Dognition.com, they’ve taken a collection of well-established tests and put them together to crate the dog assessment tools, he said.
Hare said his work creating the tests was peer reviewed, he said.
The company’s scientific advisory board includes Hare; a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth who helped found the Max Planck Institute’s Dog Cognition Study Center; an associate psychology professor at Yale University; a senior scientist Mac Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany; a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard; and the head of ethology at a university in Budapest.
Hare said Dognition tests five cognitive measures – empathy, defined as the ability to respond to the social emotions of others, communication, memory, cunning, and reasoning.
“Those five dimensions are meant to address the most important dimensions of dog intelligence,” Frey said.
And depending on where a dog fits in each of those five cognitive measures and how the owners respond to the questionnaire, the dog is placed in one of nine categories.
Hare is chief scientific officer for Canines Inc., which has been the work of a partnership that has involved entrepreneur Kip Frey, as well as Durham-based advertising agency McKinney, and Raleigh-based French West Vaughan.
Frey, Canines Inc.’s CEO, said he started talking about the idea with Brad Brinegar, chairman and CEO of McKinney, which is now a part of the South Korea-based marketing network Cheil Worldwide.
“He saw this as a big market,” Frey said.
According to the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, there are about 78.2 million owned dogs in the United States. On average, owners have almost two dogs.
Brinegar said the idea for Dognition.com struck him as a “no-brainer.”
“As a dog owner that also is a student of human psychology, this seemed like a really terrific opportunity,” Brinegar said.
Now, McKinney is providing space inside its offices at Durham’s American Tobacco campus for Canines Inc., and has also offered up services of its own staff for work on Dognition.com.
McKinney has the “McKinney 10 percent” program through which its employees are encouraged to work on projects that have something to do with existing client business.
Several ideas that have come out of that initiative were rolled into a called Red Square Ventures, a company that Brinegar said was created in light of McKinney’s sale to Cheil Worldwide, including work for Canines Inc.
“Red Square Ventures is an entity that we created to house this and several other startups that have been part of the work we’ve been doing over the last couple of years,” Brinegar said.
Another partner in the venture is French West Vaughan, a public relations agency in Raleigh. Rick French, chairman and CEO of the agency, said in an emailed statement that the company has purchased stock options from Canines Inc.
The agency has also provided paid services to Canines Inc. as well.
“There’s no startup that could put this level of expertise (in at) this stage,” Frey said.
In total, Frey said he’s raised $1 million for Canines Inc., which launched in September, and employs eight. There were more than 1,100 people signed up for Monday’s free beta release of the site, Frey said.
Frey, an attorney by training who teaches at the Duke University School of Law, is an entrepreneur who’s been president and CEO of two Durham-based technology companies recently – one that has closed, and the other that has revamped its strategy.
He was CEO of Durham-based EvoApp, a company that shut down operations earlier this year due to several product issues.
Prior to that, he was president and CEO of Zenph Sound Innovations, a technology company backed by Durham-based Intersouth Partners that was in the business of using software to recreate original music performances.
Following a foreclosure, a new company, Zenph Inc. launched offering live, online music lessons. The company had purchased the Zenph Sound Innovations assets.
Frey said previously in the 1990s, he was an executive at several successful companies that were acquired – Ventana Communications Group, Accipiter and OpenSite Technologies Inc.
“It’s always been difficult in technology,” Frey said. “Today in particular, the competition tends to be very well-funded … sometimes your company can’t move fast enough or is kind of overwhelmed by the pace of change.”
Frey said that when he looks to start a company, he looks at the potential size of the market opportunity, for some type of science or technology that’s different and “hopefully protectable,” and “great people to work with.”
“That’s how I tend to think about opportunities – in those terms,” he said. “This one was an A-plus on all the fronts.”