2018-04-05 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

OK, what’s the verdict? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? If so, should you? Here’s what recent research says:

Life-long learning is not just good for people; it is also good for dogs. Dogs are capable of learning, even in old age, and constant brain training and mental problem-solving create positive emotions and slow the natural pace of mental deterioration, according to a study released from the University of Veterinary Medicine (Vetmeduni) in Vienna in February 2018.

Unlike puppies or young dogs, old dogs are rarely trained or challenged mentally. Senior dogs are usually perfectly integrated into our lives. We often forgive them any disobedience or stubbornness. In addition, due to their increasing physical limitations, we usually spare old dogs the sort of training we might expect from young animals.

Spoiling old dogs in their twilight years by retiring them to the sofa and forgiving them their indiscretions doesn’t do our four-legged friends any good. Regular brain training and life-long learning create positive emotions and can slow down mental deterioration in old age.

A recent study suggests touchscreen games can fortify mental skills in senior dogs. A recent study suggests touchscreen games can fortify mental skills in senior dogs. Slowing and frailty in senior dogs tends to discourage the same sort of training as used in young dogs. In a new study, a team of researchers led by cognitive biologists from Vetmeduni Vienna propose computer interaction as a practical alternative. In the training lab, old dogs responded positively to cognitive training using educational touchscreen games. For example, dogs may be required to touch a moving ball on the screen with their nose. The aim now is to get the interactive “dog Sudoku” ready for home use.

Cognitive scientists from the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna believe computer games are an efficient alternative. 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. But to be practical, first the method must be taken out of the laboratory and transferred to the living room.

The Messerli Research Institute was founded in 2010 with support from a Swiss foundation. Research there focuses on the interaction between humans and animals, cognition and behavior in animals, comparative medicine and ethics. Canine cognition studies are conducted in their Clever Dog Lab.

At obedience school or at home, puppies and young dogs are socialized and challenged using a variety of training methods to help them integrate smoothly into our daily lives. As the dogs get older, we increasingly - and unconsciously - reduce the level of regular training and challenges.

“Yet this restricts the opportunities to create positive mental experiences for the animals, which remain capable of learning even in old age,” explained Lisa Wallis 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.”

An example of letting canine mental skills slide: When my female Afghan Halle was alive, she and Edgar had a regular treat routine after dinner. They’d be outside and I’d bring them each a Beggin’ Strip (which must be the dog equivalent of lobster tails). They’d make a beeline for the stoop where I was standing. I’d tell them to “sit” which they had to do correctly and completely before I would give each the coveted Beggin’ Strip so they could race off to opposite corners of the yard to enjoy.

I’ve become lax now that Edgar is the only Afghan and getting older. I don’t have the heart to tell him to sit. He thinks he is stealing the treat from me and I don’t want to burst his delusional bubble. Meanwhile his “sit” on command isn’t as perfect as it once was when reinforced each night.

Tablet games like “Sudoku” for old dogs: Under Messerli Institute laboratory conditions, training works using computer-based brain-teasers. It takes some preparation to get the dogs used to the touch screen, but once they get the trick they turn into avid computer gamers. “Touch screen interaction is usually analyzed in young dogs. But we could show that old dogs also respond positively to this cognitive training method,” said senior author Ludwig Huber. “Above all, the prospect of a reward is an important factor to motivate the dogs to do something new or challenging.”

Mentally fit four-legged “gamers” made available to the general public: Using simple tasks that can be solved through touch screen interaction, followed by a reward, even old dogs remain willing to learn. “The positive feeling created by solving a mental challenge is comparable to the feeling that older people have when they learn something new, doing something they enjoy. Regular brain training shakes not only us, but also dogs out of their apathy in old age, increasing motivation and engagement and thus maximizing learning opportunities”, says Huber.

It is still not clear whether dogs slowly forget the things they once learned because of reduced memory or due to a lack of training in old age. However, dog brain training with the touch screen can help counteract this problem. The Vienna research team hopes their study will not only motivate technicians and software developers, but also 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 life-long learning in animals,” said Wallis.

Who knows? Perhaps in the near future, the game “Kibble Krush” will be available on your senior dog’s Facebook page.

At Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Gordon” 18-48 is an American Bulldog that came in as an emaciated stray. He’s put on weight and learned to enjoy caring attention from the staff and volunteers. “June” 17-579 is a dear tabby, eight years old, who’s waited since last year to find a quiet home.

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