Lifelong Learning, Not Just for Humans – You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks!

Tired, a few aches and pains, more interested in sitting comfortably by the fire than a wet walk in the woods? Dog or owner, staying mentally active at whatever age creates positive emotions and can slow down mental deterioration.

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While you may be tempted to spoil an old hound by accepting some selective deafness, proffering less healthy food along with more sofa time, you aren’t doing your friend any favours. High intensity agility training maybe off the schedule, but there’s no excuse not to keep ageing dogs on their toes to help counter the ageing process.

Studies have shown that ageing can be slowed by mental and physical stimulation. Stopping these activities might actually lead to faster ageing in dogs, which can result in a reduction in the animal’s quality of life, and may even decrease the strength of the dog-owner bond.

In a new study, a team of researchers led by cognitive biologists have suggested computer interaction as a practical alternative to the more physical training that may be getting harder for an elderly dog to do. The EU-supported EVOLOR project found that in the lab, old dogs responded positively to cognitive training using educational touchscreen games.

There are potentially a lot of dogs that could benefit: In the UK alone, nearly one quarter of all households have a dog – that’s a lot of older dogs. The researchers report that Briton’s spent a record-breaking £7.16bn on their dogs last year, a growth of 25% since 2010.

Use it or lose it – keeping an older dog’s brain active

EVOLOR (Cognitive Ageing in Dogs) investigated the use of cognitive training using games played on touchscreens and iPads. The power of the touchscreen as a training tool is its flexibility, reliability and controllability, and its ability to provide novel motivational experiences.

The apparatus was made up of a laptop, a 38cm TFT computer monitor mounted behind an infrared touchframe, and a feeding device that distributed treats. Thirty-two holes rotated to release a single treat when the dog touched the correct stimulus. Trainers used liver sausage paste to attract the dogs to the screens and a short training session with the feeding device was also necessary.

So far around 265 dogs, and 20 wolves have been trained to use the touchscreen in several different studies, displaying increases in motivation, and learning, memory and visuospatial ability in subsequent touchscreen tasks, and other cognitive and behavioural tests.

Quadruped computer-geeks

The project found that the positive association with the touchscreen was so strong that on several occasions when the dog was alone (the trainer had stepped out to answer the phone), and the feeder failed, dogs continued to work on the touchscreen with no reward until the end of the session. Owners were so certain their dogs enjoyed the training that drop out rate was only around six dogs in total, despite the fact that for some dogs, the full training and then testing in more complex tasks lasted over a year, and owners were not compensated for participating.

After the training, when the dogs returned home, many of them fell into a restful sleep similar to that after a bout of exercise. For many owners this mental tiredness was a new concept, and stimulated them to try other mind game to play with their dogs on no-training days.

Maintaining the bond even when dogs slow down

The team explains reductions reported by owners in their pet’s trainability, and activity/excitability that occur with increasing age can result in a decline in an owner’s positive attitude towards their dog. The project’s work points out that just because dogs seem less keen on those activities doesn’t mean they don’t need mental stimulation in the form of play and challenges.

The research team hopes that this study will not only motivate technicians and software developers, but also encourage owners to consider how best they can enrich their older dogs’ lives. ‘Our scientific approach could result in an exciting citizen science project to increase the understanding of the importance of lifelong learning in animals,’ say the authors.

Source : CORDIS