February 16, 2018

You Can - and Should - Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

New research indicates that providing senior dogs with educational games on a touchscreen tablet could stimulate motivation and decrease common signs of aging.
By Amanda Carrozza
Senior Dog Brain GamesA new study from cognitive biologists in Vienna has concluded that you can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact, it may help them live longer, more fulfilled lives.

Researchers from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna in Austria pointed out that it’s commonplace for pet owners to train puppies and young dogs. Senior dogs, however, are often granted leniency for bouts of disobedience. Additionally, because of the physical limitations of some senior dogs, many pet owners don’t engage them in lifelong training.

The research team argued that by forgoing training in a dog’s later years, pet owners may unwittingly be increasing the rate at which their dogs age.

Why Continued Learning Is Important
“This restricts the opportunities to create positive mental experiences for the animals, which remain capable of learning even in old age,” said Lisa Wallis, PhD, first author of the study. “As is the case with people, dopamine production in dogs also falls in old age, leading to a decline in memory and motivational drive. But this natural mental deterioration can be countered with the specific training of cognitive skills.”

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To combat the negative effects of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle—which could include dementia and lethargy—the biologists proposed computer games as a way to stimulate older dogs’ brains while protecting them from overly strenuous physical activity. It is believed that continual training and problem-solving, even if mental rather than physical, creates positive emotions for dogs and keeps their cognitive function from declining. According to the report, which was published in the Association for Computing Machinery’s digital library, “simple mental tasks on the computer, combined with a reward system, can replace physically demanding training and still keep the animals mentally fit even in old age.” 

The Study
The research, conducted between 2010 and 2017, included 265 dogs (most of which were pets) and 20 wolves at facilities in Austria and Hungary. The animals were trained to push their snout against a touchscreen in response to flowers, teddy bears, and other imagery that appeared on the screen. Although there was an initial learning curve to get the dogs to understand how the tablets worked, the dogs in the test group responded positively to cognitive training using educational games.




The Future
Currently, no mainstream products are available to allow pet owners to replicate the study at home, but the research team said it hopes their findings will motivate software technicians and developers to create programs for senior dogs and interested dog owners to consider future cooperation. “Our scientific approach could result in an exciting citizen science project to increase the understanding of the importance of lifelong learning in animals,” Dr. Wallis concluded.
 

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