Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

How Does a Dog's Attention Vary Over Its Lifetime?

As in humans, attention is best in young adult to early middle-aged dogs

Dog Border Collie pet canine attention perception stare age development
It is becoming more common for scientists to look for similarities in the psychological processes shared by dogs and humans. This includes similarities in mental abilities (click here for an example), emotional processes (click here for an example), of humans and dogs and even the similarities of their brain mechanisms (click here for an example). Now a new study allows us to compare dogs and people on another fundamental cognitive process, namely attention. The reason why attention is important is that it interacts with so many other mental processes such as consciousness, perception, cognition, working memory and learning. Put simply, you can't perceive something if you are not paying attention to it, and if you fail to perceive something you can't learn anything about it and so forth. Many psychologists have suggested that various age-related changes in the learning and problem-solving abilities in humans have to do with changes in attention over the life span. If there are similar changes in attention processes in dogs it could also help to explain age changes in canine mental abilities.

In a research report accepted for publication in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, a team of researchers headed by Lisa Wallis at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna explored how attention changes over a dog's life. The idea was to see if selective attention has the same age-related pattern as is found in humans where the peak performance runs from young adulthood through early middle age (20 to 39 years).

This was a big study involving 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years. The authors claim that only Border Collies were used in order to eliminate any possible breed related differences, but one wonders what other breed of dogs they might consider given the fact that the testing was done in something called the Clever Dog Lab and research has suggested that the Border Collie may be the most clever dog in dogdom (click here for an example).

dog pet canine attention capture person bond human animal border collie
The first pair of tests attempted to determine how rapidly dogs of various ages pay attention to objects or humans. The object test involved a child's plastic toy watering can. It was attached to a string which went through a loop fixed to the ceiling. At some point the experimenter (who was out of sight) tugged on the string to cause the plastic object to bounce around. Two measures were taken, first how quickly dog began to pay attention to the object (technically called attentional capture), and secondly how long the dog continued paying attention to the object (technically called sustained attention). The person test involved an individual who was known to the dog. She entered the room and pretended to paint the wall with a paint roller.

If this experiment were conducted using human beings of different ages as test subjects, the expected results would be only small differences in attentional capture but large differences in sustained attention. That is exactly the pattern that was found here for the dogs. While age did not affect how quickly the dogs first looked at the object or the person, it did make a difference in how long the dogs continued to look at the target. In general the more senior dogs did not sustain their attention as long as the younger ones. Wallis summarizes her findings by saying "We found that older dogs – like older human beings – demonstrated a certain calmness. They were less affected by new items in the environment and thus showed less interest than younger dogs." However what the dogs were asked to pay attention did make a difference. Regardless of the dog's age, the experimenters found that more attention was directed to the human than to the erratically moving object.

dog pet canine attention selective person bond human animal border collie
The second experiment involved selective attention. Once again a very simple test was used, but here one that required the dog to shift attention from one task to another. This test involved the experimenter standing in front of the dog and tossing a bit of food either to her right or left. Obviously a dog will pay attention to the food and move away from the person to get it. Now the experimenter waited until the dog shifted its attention and made eye contact with her. Once eye contact was made a clicker sounded and a piece of food was tossed off to the side shifting the dog's attention away from the experimenter's face and onto the treat itself. The data involved measures of the amount of time it took for the dog snatch the bit of food and then look up into the experimenters face again. Under these test conditions the performance of the dogs varied with age and the pattern mimics the findings in humans. It was the young adult to middle-aged dogs (3 to 6 years for canines) who reacted the most rapidly.

While it is understandable that the older dogs might have slower mental processing and therefore might have more difficulty shifting their attention, that leaves us with the question as to why are the younger dogs not reacting more quickly? According to the experimenters one reason is probably their general lack of experience. A second answer is that dogs like humans go through a difficult phase during their adolescence (which is 1 to 2 years in dogs), and this is partly due to hormonal changes in their bodies.

There is a quirk in the data here and that has to do with the fact that in the selective attention task there is something to be learned, namely that the optimal strategy is to pay attention to the food and quickly grab it, then to rapidly shift attention to the experimenter's face to trigger a click and another piece of food. Over the 20 trials all of the dogs, from six months to 14 years, showed an ability to learn to do this— and that includes the geriatric dogs. However when the researchers looked at the rate of learning, the fastest improvements were for the adolescent dogs. Wallis sums this up saying "Thus, dogs in puberty have great potential for learning and therefore trainability." This is similar to what anyone who has ever lived with young human teenagers has probably experienced. They are capable of learning quickly and efficiently if only you can get their attention — which is not always easy. This also appears to be the case in dogs.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: Lisa J.Wallis, Friederike Range, Corsin A. Müller, Samuel Serisier, Ludwig Huber, and Zsófia Virányi (2014). Lifespan development of attentiveness in domestic dogs: drawing parallels with humans. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00071

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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