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Your dog is a genius. You just don’t realize it.

What do pets do all day while their owners are at work? If it were up to Dan Knudsen, they’d be solving puzzles.

Knudsen co-founded CleverPet, a puzzle game for dogs and cats that aims to reduce loneliness caused by isolation while pushing the bounds of what pet owners think their furry friends can do.

“There are millions of cats and dogs who stay at home all day while their people are off at work,” said Knudsen, who graduated from Northeastern in 2006 with a degree in behavioral neuroscience. “The real use-case here is giving those pets something interesting to do with that time while giving their owners insight into their animals’ rich inner lives.”

Dan Knudsen, who graduated from Northeastern in 2006 with a degree in behavioral neuroscience, co-founded CleverPet, a puzzle game for cats and dogs. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

CleverPet is an internet-connected food dispenser with three illuminated touchpads and a speaker on the outside. The touchpads light up in a specific order based on the difficulty of the puzzle—the harder the puzzle the longer the sequence. Pets who successfully follow and repeat the pattern by touching the pads with their paws or noses get rewarded with some kibble.

The puzzles within CleverPet are rooted in behavioral neuroscience—Knudsen’s speciality.

As a student, Knudsen studied how various animal think, often designing puzzles for them to solve in a lab. A dog owner himself, Knudsen said he always knew there was a way to combine these two interests.

“When we understand that another species is more like us than we thought, it helps us see the similarities among ourselves more than the differences.”

Dan Knudsen, co-founder of CleverPet

While he was a doctoral student at the University of California, San Diego, Knudsen and a colleague began talking about their research. They realized that while people have elaborate entertainment systems for themselves, their pets are often left alone all day with little to stimulate their brains.

“These are animals with rich inner lives that are just sitting around waiting for people to come home,” he said. “This was an opportunity to use the scientific and technical skills I had to fix that problem.”

Knudsen, who recently started working at a startup that designs software applications for managing complex neuroscience data, said CleverPet enabled him to apply his expertise in behavioral neuroscience to help animals and humans alike.

“It’s really wonderful when you see that moment of understanding for an animal,”  Knudsen said. “When we understand that another species is more like us than we thought, it helps us see the similarities among ourselves more than the differences.”

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