Lifelong learning is not just good for people, it is also good for dogs. Canines are capable of learning in old age and constant brain training and mental problem-solving slows the natural pace of mental deterioration and create positive emotions.
Typically old dogs are almost never trained or challenged mentally, unlike boisterous young pups, but rather retired to lie around peacefully (and very possibly quite bored). Senior dogs are are often forgiven any disobedience or stubbornness and beside a slow walk perhaps 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 doesn’t do our four-legged friends any good. 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. The aim now is to get the interactive “dog sudoku” ready for home use.
Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna propose computer games as 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. First, however, the method must be taken out of the laboratory and transferred to the living room.
As the dogs get older, however, 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,” explains first author Lisa Wallis. “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.”
Under laboratory conditions, the training works using computer-based brain-teasers. It does take some preparation to get the dogs used to the touchscreen, but once the animals have got the trick they turn into avid computer gamers. “Touchscreen interaction is usually analysed in young dogs. But we could show that old dogs also respond positively to this cognitive training method,” says senior author Ludwig Huber. “Above all, the prospect of a reward is an important factor to motivate the animals to do something new or challenging.”
The research team hopes that this 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 lifelong learning in animals,” says Wallis.