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Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

A new study researches a dog's cognitive functions and ability to learn based on age group.


A study published in the journal AGE (The Official Journal of the American Aging Association) in January reported the results of a test at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. The researchers, led by Drs. Lisa Wallis and Friederike Range, looked at how a dog's cognition changed with age.

The study recruited 95 Border Collies from five-months old to 13 years of age. The researchers chose the breed because they are "fast learners" and "easy to train" and their popularity in the country made access to a large enough number of them easy for recruitment purposes. The researchers separated the dogs into five groups, based on age, and each group was tested on four different tasks that were designed to look at the dogs' cognitive abilities. These abilities include the ability to learn using visual discrimination, use reason to exclude incorrect choices, and use long term memory and the study used touchscreens displaying pictures that dogs were rewarded for if they selected correctly and given a time out if they did not.

The researchers found that age does indeed affect a dog's ability to learn. While older dogs (three years plus) clearly could learn new things, compared to the younger dogs they needed more trials to do the task correctly, which involved visual discrimination. They also found that older dogs were less "flexible" in that they persisted to display the same errors more than the younger dogs, which may be due to the inability to change one's thinking based on negative feedback, which has also been observed in studies of other species and humans.

However, the researchers found that compared to the younger dogs, the older dogs (three years plus) seemed to have better logical abilities. On a task related to selecting pictures from the previous task with different criteria, younger dogs had difficulty with the task while older dogs selected the correct item by exclusion which indicates more reasoning on the older dogs' part.

Finally, the researchers found no significant differences in the age groups with long term memory. They performed the same tests six months later and a majority of the dogs remembered the right pictures to choose over the incorrect ones. Related to memory, the researchers did hypothesize that younger dogs make more use of working memory compared to older dogs, who have less working memory available, which may explain why the younger dogs learned quicker.

Some might assume that the older dogs did not do as well due to their eyesight decreasing with age. However, the researchers did test for this and found no visual impairments and all of the dogs, despite their age, were able to pass the visual discrimination tasks which indicates that vision was not an issue.

While we don't know how these results would compare with dogs of other breeds, this study gives a good glimpse into the changes in a dog's cognition over age. The study results would indicate that, as we work with our dogs training for agility, whether for competition or just for fun, giving older dogs more time and more trials when learning a new obstacle or handling is a good way of ensuring success for both trainer and dog.

To read more about the study, you can access the entire open access PDF at the journal website

Photo Credit: © Dizajune | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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