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Study: You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks


When it comes to learning new commands, the older dog has long been given a skeptical status. But does he really deserve that raised eyebrow? Researchers tell us otherwise.

A team of researchers at the Messerli Research Institute, in Vetmeduni, Vienna, recently conducted one of the first studies on the effect that aging has on the cognitive processes of canines.

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Their findings were both good and bad for the senior pup: while all ages of dogs tested displayed the ability to learn, the older dogs took a little longer in the process.

Lisa Wallis and Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute studied 95 Border Collies, ranging from age five months to 13 years. The participating dogs remained living at home and were brought into the lab on test days by their owners. Dogs were broken into five age groups, and were taught to ‘nose’ a touch-sensitive monitor in response to pictures shown. The tests looked at three cognitive abilities: learning, logical reasoning and memory.

Learning: Pick the Correct Picture

In the first part of the test, the dogs were taught to identify the correct picture. In varying combinations, a total of eight abstract pictures were displayed to the dogs, two at a time. Touching one photo of the pair brought on a positive result: a treat; touching the other gave the dog a negative result: a time out.

“Older dogs required more trials than younger ones before they were able to solve the task correctly,” reported Wallis, adding that this revealed that older dogs are less flexible in their way of thinking than younger ones, and, like people, find it more difficult to change existing habits.

Logical Reasoning: Infer Based on What You Know

Once their knowledge of the first eight pictures was established, the dogs moved on to the second part of the study. This looked at their ability to infer by exclusion – to use their past knowledge to eliminate an option, and thereby arrive upon the correct choice.

The dogs were again shown two pictures at a time on the touch screen, one with a positive association, and the other with a negative. The picture with the negative association was repeated from the first study. The other picture – with the positive association – was one the dogs hadn’t seen before. Using their prior knowledge of the ‘wrong’ picture, the dogs were expected to infer that the new picture must be the positive one.

In this test, the older dogs stood out.

“This is probably due to the fact that older dogs more stubbornly insist on what they have learned before and are less flexible than younger animals,” reported Range.

Memory: Long Term Recollection

Finally, six months later, all the dogs were brought back in to test their long-term memory. The dogs were shown the same pictures as before, and nearly all the dogs were still able to identify the positive pictures.

So Where Does that Leave the Senior Dog?

While it may take a little longer for an older dog to learn, it’s still time well spent. Most dogs enjoy mental stimulation, and learning a new behavior, as well as practicing known behaviors, will keep your dog’s mind sharp and eliminate boredom. In addition, your dog will enjoy the attention and rewards associated with a training session, reinforcing his bond with you.

So even though your dog already knows how to sit, lay down, and where to do his business, he’ll still enjoy taking on a new challenge every now and then. Just proceed slowly, give him lots of rewards and encouragement, and keep each session short and focused.

unnamed Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer, published in numerous national and local outlets. An avid vegetarian, animal lover and reader, she loves learning about healthy eating and finding natural cures for everyday ailments.

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