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You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Old dogs may learn more slowly, however they will remember.

Lisa Wallis/Vetmeduni Vienna photo
Source: Lisa Wallis/Vetmeduni Vienna photo

It was the first day of a beginner's dog obedience class. A woman was standing beside a Golden Retriever, and the dog's face was showing a considerable amount of gray on it. The woman said, in a troubled tone, "I'm not sure that this class is going to do any good. My dog is eight years old and she's never had any obedience training. My husband insists that you can't teach an old dog new tricks." This is a common concern among dog owners who worry about whether it is "too late" to teach their dog new things. In my personal experience, my own dogs seem capable of a lot of learning well into their senior years, and now there is new scientific data to back that conclusion.

A recent study has just come out of the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna which is part of the University of Vienna. The team of researchers was headed by Lisa Wallis and the study was published in the journal Age*. This is one of a series of investigations that have been carried out at the "Clever Dog Lab", which is headed by Friederike Range of the University of Vienna. I believe that the lab gets its name because it most commonly uses Border Collies as its test subjects and these dogs have been shown to be extremely intelligent (click here for more on that). This three-year-long study involved 95 border collies ranging in age from five months to 13 years, all of whom were pet dogs that were brought into the laboratory at various times for testing.

The effect of aging on cognitive processes (such as learning, memory, and problem-solving), has so far been studied mostly in humans, where it was confirmed that older brains are often less efficient in these areas. However, it has recently been established that dogs show many of the same kind of age related changes that humans do (click here for more on that) and this study is an attempt to explore those kinds of changes more thoroughly in canines.

The apparatus used in this study involved a touch screen attached to a computer. The way that it works is that when the dog touches the correct item displayed on the screen the computer will deliver a treat from a dispenser located below it. Friederike Range discovered the usefulness of the touch screen for working with dogs totally by accident. She had started taking her Border Collie puppy, Guinness, to work and found that he enjoyed playing with the touch screen used by some other researchers to study cognitive processes in pigeons. The touch screen has now become a standard piece of apparatus in the Clever Dog Lab.

The basic setup of this study involves projecting two items on the screen, side-by-side. If the dog touches the correct picture with his nose he is rewarded with a food treat. Touching the incorrect picture does not result in a treat but rather in a timeout. In each set of test items there were four "positive" pictures that were always rewarded and four "negative" pictures that were never rewarded. In the easier task the pictures were simple clipart style images (such as a clock or a cup), while in the more complex discrimination the pictures involved underwater photographs versus abstract paintings.

The first, and most important, finding is that all of the dogs were capable of learning these discriminations. However that is not to say that there weren't differences in learning ability depending on the age of the dogs. The data showed that it took older dogs more training trials to reach the desired level of proficiency and the older dogs had to endure more correction trials. To give you an example, the most efficient learners were dogs in the six-month to one year of age group. On the easy discrimination task it took them approximately 18 trials to reach the learning criterion set by the experimenters (which was 87% correct choices for this task). Compare this to older dogs which were around 10 years of age who took approximately 39 trials to reach the same learning criterion. This means that these elderly dogs took more than twice as long to learn — however they did learn, and did reach exactly the same criterion eventually.

In addition to the straight discrimination tasks the investigators looked at logical reasoning on the part of the dogs. This involves what has been called an "exclusion task". After the dogs had reached their learning criterion they were again shown pairs of pictures on the touch screen. This time one of the pictures was completely new (one that had never been used in any of their training sessions), while the second one was familiar from their previous training where it had been one of the "negative" or always unrewarded pictures. When presented with such a choice the logical reasoning should be "I know that that one of these pictures has never been rewarded when I touched it before so my best bet would be to choose the other one."

Surprisingly, the older dogs did better than the younger dogs in this inference or reasoning task. Range summarizes their findings saying, "The older the dog, the better it performed, while younger dogs were unable to master this task. 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."

Finally there is the question as to how well the dogs retained what they had learned. For this part of the test the investigators allowed at least six months to a lapse after the first learning tests, and then they repeated the touch screen trials using the same pictures as before in order to test the dogs' long-term memory skills. The good news is that nearly all of the dogs remembered the correct pictures as being positive. In this long-term memory test there were no significant age related differences.

So the conclusion that can be reached from this research is that you can teach an old dog new tricks, only it'll take longer than it takes a young dog — however, once that old dog has learned he will remember these new things over the long-term.

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

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Data from:

* Lisa J. Wallis, Zsófia Virányi, Corsin A. Müller, Samuel Serisier, Ludwig Huber and Friederike Range (2016). Aging effects on discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory in pet dogs. Age, 38:6 DOI 10.1007/s11357-015-9866-x

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