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Attention Changes in the Course of a Dog's Life Mirror Those of Humans

When will your pup be most attentive? By Claudia Bensimoun


In this study, Dr. Lisa Wallis at the Messerli Research Institute, Vetmeduni, Vienna, and her colleagues investigated how dogs focused and concentrated. In order for dogs to learn successfully, they need to have a certain amount of concentration and attention. Nonetheless, Dr. Willis and colleagues discovered that the attentiveness of dogs changes throughout the span of a dog's life, similar to humans.

Most importantly, in addressing attention changes in the course of a dog's life (when attention peaks and declines in dogs), they concluded that dogs' attentional and sensorimotor control developmental trajectories are very similar to those found in humans.

The research, published in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology, demonstrated that the attentiveness of all dogs changes during the course of their lives, as it does in humans. The research included 145 Border Collies, aged 6 months to 14 years, at the Clever Dog Lab, Vetmeduni Institute, Vienna. Only those dogs that willingly cooperated were involved in these studies. Wallis and her colleagues then determined for the very first time, how attentiveness changes in the entire course of a dog's life using a cross-sectional study design.

Dogs Found Humans More Interesting Than Objects

Wallis wanted to determine how rapidly dogs of various age groups pay attention to objects or humans. In the first test, the dogs were confronted with a child's toy that was suddenly suspended from the ceiling. Wallis and her colleagues then measured how quickly each dog reacted to this occurrence, and also how rapidly the dogs became accustomed to it. At the beginning of testing, all the dogs reacted with similar speed to the stimulus (the child's toy). But the older dogs lost interest in the toy more quickly than the younger dogs did.

In the second test, a familiar person that was known to the dog being tested entered the room and then pretended to paint the wall. Surprisingly, all the dogs reacted together. The dogs watched the person and the paint roller in the painter's hands for a much longer time than they did watching the toy that was hanging from the ceiling. "So-called 'social attentiveness' was more pronounced in all dogs than 'non-social' attentiveness. The dogs generally tended to react by watching the person with the object for longer than an object on its own. We found that older dogs, like older human beings, demonstrated certain calmness. They were less affected by new items in the environment and thus showed less interest than younger dogs," says Wallis on sciencedaily.com*.

Selective Attention is Highest in Mid-Adulthood

In another test, Wallis and colleagues explored so-called selective attention. The dogs first had to participate in an alternating attention task. In this test, the dogs had to perform two tasks in succession. In the first test, the dogs had to find a food reward that had been thrown on the floor by the experimenter. After the dogs ate the food, the experimenter would then wait for the dog to establish eye contact with her. These tasks were repeated for 20 trials. Each time there was eye contact, a clicking sound made by a clicker would sound and the dog was then rewarded with hot dog bits. The researchers then timed how long it took for the dog to find the food and look up in the experimenter's face. By comparing both time spans, middleaged dogs that were between three and six years old reacted more rapidly. Within these testing conditions, sensorimotor abilities were found to be the highest among dogs that were middle-aged.

Younger dogs did not do as well, most likely due to their general lack of experience. It was found that motor abilities in dogs, as in humans, deteriorate with advanced age, though. "Humans that were between the ages of 20 and 39 years old experience a similar peak in sensorimotor abilities," says Wallis.

Adolescent Dogs Have the Steepest Learning Curve

Wallis explained that dogs also go through a difficult phase during adolescence, normally between one to two years of age. This affects their ability to pay attention. The researchers compared this phase to puberty in humans. Not surprisingly, young dogs sometimes reacted with some delay with the clicker test. Nonetheless, Wallis concluded that young adolescent dogs improved their performance more rapidly than any other age groups after having made several repetitions of the clicker test. That is to say that the learning curve in adolescent dogs was found to be the steepest in puberty. "Thus, dogs in puberty have great potential for learning and therefore trainability," explains Wallis.

Dogs Serve as a Model for ADHD and Alzheimer's Disease Studies

Since the development of attentiveness during a dog's life span is similar to that of human development in many ways, dogs make appropriate animal models for many psychological human diseases. ADHD and Alzheimer's can be studies by observing canine behavior. In her most recent project, Wallis is studying the effects of diet on cognition in older dogs together with Dr. Durga Chapagain. In case anyone's interested, they're looking for volunteers.

Links

http://www.vetmeduni.ac.at/en/messerli/

http://www.vetmeduni.ac.at/en/messerli/science/

http://www.vetmeduni.ac.at/en/messerli/science/cognition/clever-dog-lab/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140401102245.htm


Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.

*All quotes from Dr. Wallace were posted on sciencedaily.com.

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