Old dogs can learn new tricks. It just takes them longer

At least, that’s the conclusion reached in a new study that tested the efficacy of using computer touchscreens to stimulate dogs’ mental abilities, especially older dogs.

Researchers in Austria and Hungary tested the cognitive abilities of 265 dogs of various breeds and ages by training them to push their snouts against a special touchscreen and select one of two pictures.

When dogs touched the correct picture, they were rewarded with a treat. When they pushed the incorrect picture, they received no treats and got a timeout instead.

The researchers were testing cognitive ability in three areas: learning, logical reasoning, and memory.

The tests revealed that differences in cognitive ability depended on the age of the dogs.

Older dogs took longer to figure it out than younger ones. The findings also indicated that the older dogs were less flexible in their thinking than younger dogs.

A  second test introduced new pair of positive-association pictures to the mix. Designed to test logical reasoning, this test proved easer for older dogs than for younger ones.

The findings led researchers to conclude that touchscreens might turn out to be a good way to enrich older dogs’ lives and keep their minds sharp, much like a form of a canine crossword or doggie sudoku. They might also prove useful for calming dogs and keeping them quiet at veterinary hospitals, boarding kennels, and other institutional settings.

NEWStat asked lead author Lisa Wallis, PhD, MSc, a cognitive biologist with the Senior Family Dog project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, to tell us a little more about the study.

NEWStat: What inspired the researchers to use touchscreens in the research?

Lisa Wallis: We were interested in measuring dogs’ learning and problem-solving abilities without the influence of the owners and the experimenters. Laboratory studies [of] many species including dogs have used the touchscreen in order to examine age-related changes in cognition, and also to test the effects of pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals. The touchscreen provides a unique opportunity for humans to learn more about the way dogs think. We are still designing experiments to examine more aspects of cognition.

NEWStat: How might your research affect the ways humans train dogs in the future?

LW: Each dog is an individual, and so the way a dog interacts with the touchscreen can tell us a lot about their personality and the way they learn . . . so training can be tailored to the individual.

NEWStat: How did the older dogs do in the tests compared to younger dogs? How were their results different?

LW: All dogs, young and old, were motivated to work with the touchscreen, as they had the opportunity to receive yummy food rewards, and in most cases, it was the first time that they realized that they could control when they received a treat, independent from their owner. However, the older dogs often needed longer to complete the training, and they also needed more sessions to [figure out which picture was positive and which was negative] in comparison to the younger dogs. They also made more mistakes. However, dogs of all ages and breeds were able to learn the [difference] eventually.

NEWStat: What implications do your findings have for veterinarians treating aging canine patients who show signs of mental deterioration?

LW: If enough dogs can be tested, then we might be able to determine very early which dogs could develop cognitive dysfunction. If it is detected early, then interventions (dietary/pharmaceutical/nutraceutical) can be carried out, which, hopefully, will slow the signs of mental deterioration. Even for those dogs who are already being treated, regular touchscreen training can help to increase motivation and improve quality of life.

Photo credit: © iStock/media production

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