Posted Date: February 8, 2016
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
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.
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