Is it possible to teach old dogs new tricks? According to a group of researchers, the answer is yes. And doing so may even improve their quality of life and ‘keep their minds sharp.’
Scientists from Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab taught 100 border collies and 115 pets of various dog breeds to play ‘dog sudoku.’ They wanted to know whether brain games can give a similar mind-sharpening to senior dogs as they do to elderly humans.
During the first training stage, the canine participants were introduced to the touchscreen machine used for the study. It dispensed food automatically with each correct action, which intrigued the dogs. The pooches later managed to go to the screen without nudging at the food dispensing tube underneath it.
In the second stage, the canine pets were able to learn to link the image on the screen to a treat. Whenever a coloured circle flashed onscreen, the dogs’ owners would dab some food paste on the spot.
For the third stage, no food paste was dabbed. The dogs were then able to press their noses to the spot when the circle appeared, instead of licking it. When they pressed on the dot, a food reward comes out of the pipe underneath the screen. When the dot appears again on a different part of the screen and the dogs correctly press it, they are given another treat.
In the final phase, the canine subjects were shown two images. Whenever they pressed the right one, a treat is dispensed. When they nudged on the wrong image, the screen goes blank and the task is repeated.
How Senior Dogs Performed
According to the lead researcher of the study, Dr. Lisa Wallis, the senior dogs ‘were able to learn such abstract and sometimes difficult tasks.’ She said the results were very encouraging and noted that the canine participants enjoyed the training.
A researcher from another institute, the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, expressed optimism over the findings. Angie Johnston said that it appears ‘brain training with touchscreens has the potential to help preserve old dogs’ cognitive skills. However, further research needs to be done to verify the results.
What the Dog Owners Observed
The researchers did not use tools that could objectively measure whether the canine subjects’ quality of life improved. They, however, relied on the feedback of the pet owners.
The owners of the participating senior dogs reported that they were amazed at their pets’ progress. They were also pleased with their dogs’ enthusiasm when they anticipated the weekly training sessions. Some of the dog owners had to drive for more than an hour to get to the lab each week.
‘The positive feeling created by solving a mental challenge is comparable to the feeling that older people have when they learn something new,’ said Dr. Ludwig Huber, one of the researchers in the study. ‘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.
In the wake of these encouraging results, researchers are hoping that mental games may help reinforce the pet-owner bond. The study also shows that a touchscreen game may help boost a canine pet’s well-being. This may encourage the development of tablet games designed for dogs.
‘If one can get them to play these games, I think it’s surely worth a try,’ commented animal behaviour expert Dr. Marc Bekoff. ‘Nothing would be lost and there’s a lot that could be gained.’
It looks like the next gadget we are getting will be a touchscreen game machine to improve our dog’s well-being.
3 Ways to Mentally Challenge Your Senior Dog
If you have an older pet, you can engage in simple activities that can stimulate his mind. Some of them may seem routine and too simple for humans, but not so for canines! Here are some of them:
1. 3-Card Monte
- Take three empty cups and punch a hole in the bottom part of each cup.
- Put a treat on the floor and cover it with a cup.
- Put down the rest of the other cups and slide them around.
- Ask your pet to pick the cup with the treat in it.
2. Doggie Board Game
There are board games or puzzles designed for dogs that you can enjoy playing together. These boards usually allow you to hide things or treats in it and challenge your dog to find them.
3. Food Hunt
Pooches just love to hunt, especially if food is the objective. You can indulge your senior pet in this using a cardboard box filled with scrunched-up newspaper. Toss in a few dry doggie food and treats and let him forage the contents to his heart’s delight.
Tell us what sort of games you play with your dogs. Share it with other pet parents!
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