Let Your Dog Do Science

Citizen science opportunities for dog lovers
By Jodi Wheeler-Toppen PhD, April 2018

You are the expert on your dogs. You’ve spent years observing them closely, noting their habits and feelings and quirks. Your watchful eyes are capturing data that could help researchers understand and improve care for dogs in all stages of life. You can share that data by participating in canine citizen science. Citizen science projects rely on large numbers of volunteers to collect data, and then submit it online. More and more canine researchers are turning to the internet to gather information about pet pups. These projects allow you to participate in science research taking place all over the world.

 For many of these studies, you are doing the work: taking a survey or recording and reporting your dog’s behavior. For example, the Family Dog Project in Budapest wants to know what makes your dog whine and whether she has separation anxiety. The University of Lincoln (UK) wants to know if you tell secrets to your pooch that you hide from your significant other. Some of these studies give you feedback about your pup—think BuzzFeed quizzes for dogs. If you complete the C-BARQ assessment, you'll get a colorful graph showing how your dog’s behavior compares to others.

Other studies involve your dog more deeply, and this is where it really gets fun. The vonHoldt lab at Princeton University is researching the genetics of friendly dogs. Their research includes a problem-solving test and a sociability test that you administer to your pup and then return the results via video. For Darwin’s Dogs, you send in a cheek swab that will allow the research team to process your dog’s DNA, and hopefully help untangle how genetics shape their behavior. The Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State wants you to take your dog for a walk, collect some poo, and send them a sample. While you're out, you can take photos of any “poo-lution” you find, so the researchers in the PooPower study can map unscooped poop across the globe.

Once you start looking, dog science research opportunities are everywhere. You can find more studies at SciStarter, a database for a wide-range of citizen science projects, or you can register with the Dog Science Group, a clearinghouse of citizen science projects; once you are registered, they’ll send you information on any projects that have listed with them. Current projects include measuring and photographing your pup's head for a study on dental health and video-taping your spinning dog for a study on tail-chasing behavior.

You and your dog just may fall in love with being scientists. And if you do, you can take it further by signing up for in-person (or in-dog) studies. Many universities are looking for volunteers. Your contribution to science could help improve the lives of dogs everywhere.

Jodi Wheeler-Toppen has written a variety of science books and articles for teachers, parents, and children with National Geographic Kids, NSTA Press, ASK Magazine, Highlights, and others. Her newest book, Dog Science Unleashed: fun activities to do with your canine companion, will be released in August.

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