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The Minds of Dogs: Making Tools and Getting Old

Citizen science is contributing to what we know about tool behavior and aging.

Key points

  • We need to let dogs be dogs, stop over-controlling them, and allow them opportunities to display how creative they can be.
  • Senior dogs can have very rich lives and we shouldn't write them off as "being over the hill" when they're not.
  • Citizen and formal science are helping us learn more about the rich cognitive and emotional lives of dogs.

For many years I've received notes about dogs using various objects as tools. I've previously written about Melvin using a piece of rope to get another dog to play; Grendel fashioning a marrow bone as a backscratcher; and a beagle who stole chicken nuggets from a toaster oven, called "Operation nugget liberation." Here are some other stories:

Jimmy Dunn wrote about Dammit Janet who “uses a frisbee to move around his food bowl where she wants it.”

Valerie Balkwill sent me a video of Bertie using a brush to push around a tennis ball.

Valerie Chaney wrote how Moose often uses a llama-shaped toy as a bat to hit a ball along the floor.

Pamela wrote about Daisy: "Since she was very small, she has used soft toys as ‘bats’ to send hard toys whizzing across the floors by shaking the soft toy. She also manipulates and holds (with one paw) the ‘ball’ in position before she bats it across the room."

Mary Angilly told me about Buster intentionally moving a chair to get a cookie on a shelf above her desk.

And there's Maizee, who "uses furniture to hold her Y-shaped bone in place, making it easier for her to chew."

Jennifer Rapowitz, with permission.
Source: Jennifer Rapowitz, with permission.

I don't know of any formal research on tool behavior by dogs and hope the observations of citizen scientists will motivate more systematic research. There is much to learn, and we need to give dogs the opportunities to display their creative skills.

What is it like to get old?

Numerous people also are interested in what life is like for aging dogs, and citizen science is helping us along.Senior dogs can have incredibly rich lives and we can learn a lot from elder canines1,2

We currently know a lot about canine cognitive dysfunction and dog dementia. An essay called "Inside the brains of aging dogs" by Lesley Evans Ogden summarizes what we know from citizen and formal science.3

Ogden writes about the Dog Aging Project, the goal of which is "to understand how genes, lifestyle, and environment influence aging," as well as the Family Dog Project. These and other groups are concerned with brain health, focusing on questions such as, "What is normal cognitive aging?" and, "Do early memory impairments signal later dementia?" There also is great interest in how to stop deterioration when it occurs.

Two interesting findings from this research are that physical exercise is good for aging dogs, as is restricting caloric input. On average, dogs fed once a day were healthier than dogs fed more frequently—they had fewer gastrointestinal, dental, orthopedic, kidney, urinary, and other disorders than dogs fed more frequently. They also performed slightly better on cognitive tests.

Why eating less seems to improve cognition remains a mystery. One researcher notes, "the effect was stark: roughly the size of the difference in average cognitive scores between 7- and 11-year-old dogs."

Emmylou Harris, with permission.
Source: Emmylou Harris, with permission.

Because one characteristic of many older dogs is that they go blind, I wrote an essay "Why Blind Dogs Can Play Fetch, Find Toys, and Stay on Track." New research has shown a link between sight and smell in dogs' brains.

Sight-limited or blind dogs can have good lives but may need more care than sighted canines. In response to my piece, Emmylou Harris wrote to me, "We actually just rescued an old guy (10yrs) [Gabe] who is almost blind and will have one infected eye removed as soon as we get his weight up—terribly neglected, but safe and getting lots of love now."4

Many of the notes I receive give me hope. However, from time to time I get emails from people telling me that they are very sorry to be giving up their senior dog because they can't see or hear—most can still use their ubiquitous sniffer—and it's just too hard to keep them, or they feel sorry for them. I often ask if they have sought help from a veterinarian, and, while some have, some say they haven't but life is simply too hard for the dog.

Old dogs can have great lives

All too often, elder dogs are subjected to ageism and dismissed. While their lives can be more difficult for them and their humans, there are things we can do for them to enrich their lives. Some seniors like to play, and we should encourage them to play with us and other dogs as much as possible. Old dogs can be taught new tricks, so to speak, and while it might be challenging, this sort of enrichment may benefit them cognitively.

Along these lines, one team of researchers found, "traits like problem-solving ability, boldness, and playfulness declined predictably with age. But in a task where dogs had to learn to make eye contact with the trainer after finding and eating a piece of sausage dropped on the floor, a behavior rewarded with another piece of sausage, older dogs performed just as well."

Clearly, we shouldn't underestimate the cognitive, emotional, or physical capacities of dogs, even when they've slowed down. Keeping older dogs' bodies, brains, and hearts active—enriching their lives—is good for them, good for maintaining a strong relationship with us when they may need us the most, and also good for us as we age and grow alongside them.

Letting dogs be dogs

One important take-home message is that we should let dogs have the freedom to be dogs and allow them to express their creativity. We need to grant them more "canine degrees of freedom"—more agency—so they can do things we often stop them from doing, such as figuring out how to make tools or how to steal food.

In a human-oriented world, it's nearly impossible for dogs to display the remarkable richness of their cognitive capacities because far too often we "helicopter parent" them by saying, "Don't do that," when all they're trying to do is show us how crafty they can be.

Another important message is that citizen scientists do, indeed, provide critical information for studying tool use, for making the lives of senior dogs the best they can be, and for learning about many other aspects of dog cognition.5,6

I'm pleased there is so much widespread interest in dog cognition. What an exciting time it is to study these remarkable beings, and everyone can contribute.


1) A Salute to Senior Dogs: Elders Can Teach Us New Tricks, Too; Special Needs and Senior Dogs Rock: They, Too, Need Love; Older Dogs: Giving Elder Canines Lots of Love and Good Lives.

2) It’s difficult to say exactly when a dog becomes a senior citizen. There are marked individual differences as there are in humans, but when they slow down and seem to want to rest more and show changes in behavior that seem to be age-correlated, this label can well apply.

3) The subtitle reads, "In a citizen science project, thousands of pet dogs are helping scientists to understand what happens to memory and cognition in old age"—and from more traditional research."

4) Emmylou Harris focuses on rescuing senior dogs.

5) Another area of research where citizen science can be very useful for motivating formal studies is self-recognition. While dogs fail traditional tests of self-awareness, there still is much work to be done (see Dogs, Mirrors, and Purple Fuzz: Did Honey Know That's Honey?)

6) Laughlin Stewart et al., Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research. PLOS One, 2015.

Do Dogs Know They're Dying? What Citizen Science Tells Us.

Good Grief: The Importance of Loving Pets in Life and Death.

Barish-Stern, F. Shamrock's Story From Hurricane Katrina to Doggy Dementia & Alzheimer's. Golden Quill Press, 2022.