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Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks? Scientists Aim To Find Out

Not much is known for sure about how dogs age. The Dog Aging Project aims to change that through systematic research programs

Founded in 2014, the Dog Aging Project has enrolled 40,000 pet dogs in an effort to understand, among other things, when dogs’ mental functioning reaches its peak and how it declines with age. Researchers at the University of Washington and Texas A&M are tackling the question via veterinary records, DNA samples, health questionnaires and cognitive tests on the dogs. Better understanding and care for aged pets is a key goal, of course:

“There’s a lot we just don’t know about how dog cognition changes with age,” says comparative psychologist Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a collaborator on the Dog Aging Project. What is normal cognitive aging? Do early memory impairments signal later dementia? A longer-term aim, MacLean says, is to identify early interventions that could slow deterioration.

Lesley Evans Ogden, “Inside the Brains of Aging Dogs” at Knowable Magazine (July 26, 2022)

The Project is currently testing rapamycin which has slowed the deterioration associated with aging in mice:

The cognitive test is intended to track memory and learning over time:

One test designed to study memory and learning, for example, involves three brightly colored, boldly patterned squares that dogs have been trained to associate with a specific location on the screen. During the test, dogs face a screen inside a wooden box and are supposed to touch the square with their noses only when it appears in its correct spot. Bray’s tests explore normal cognitive functioning, but they also target skills that may change with age and are dependent on brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s disease in people and its analog in dogs, known as canine cognitive dysfunction. Dogs — who learn to love screen time, based on their tail wagging — will be periodically tested to see how their memory and learning abilities hold up over time.

Lesley Evans Ogden, “Inside the Brains of Aging Dogs” at Knowable Magazine (July 26, 2022)

By the way, re teaching an old dog new tricks, the Family Dog Project in Hungary, which sponsors research on dogs, decided to research that:

Comparative cognition expert Zsófia Virányi and her former student, Durga Chapagain, gave 119 pet dogs a series of 11 cognition tests involving tasks like viewing pictures, playing, finding hidden food and manipulating toys. They found that 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.

Lesley Evans Ogden, “Inside the Brains of Aging Dogs” at Knowable Magazine (July 26, 2022) The published research noted is open access.

So it turns out to depend to some extent on the tricks we want the dog to learn.

Kai is choosing a symbol on a touch screen
as part of a study of aging and memory
in dogs/Arizona Canine Cognition Center

One interesting Dog Aging Project find — doubtless a sharp disappointment to many dogs — is that feeding a dog only one meal a day was associated with both better health and better performance on cognitive tests. More research is needed but a similar effect has been noted in mice.

Speaking of dog cognition, a 2016 study found that dogs can remember what their human friends do:

The study found that dogs can recall a person’s complex actions even when they don’t expect to have their memory tested…

Dogs trained to “Do as I Do” can watch a person perform an action and then do the action themselves. For example, if their owner jumps in the air and then gives the “Do it!” command, the dog would jump in the air too…

Next, they did another round of training in which dogs were trained to lie down after watching the human action, no matter what it was.

After the dogs had learned to lie down reliably, the researchers surprised them by saying “Do It” and the dogs did. In other words, the dogs recalled what they’d seen the person do even though they had no particular reason to think they’d need to remember. They showed episodic-like memory.

Cell Press, “Your dog remembers what you did” at Phys.org (November 23, 2016) The paper is open access.

It might be helpful to use such a memory test on the same dogs as they age.

Aged dogs are often the companions of aged people so keeping the dog’s mental abilities in good shape will lengthen the years of loving companionship for the senior as well.

You may also wish to read: Claim: We’ve shown that dogs can form “abstract concepts.” It’s a good idea to be skeptical when any such claim is followed up with the assertion that humans “aren’t that cognitively unique after all.” Why is the claim of abstract thinking in dogs never called out? Because promissory materialism demands that either dogs reason or humans don’t.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks? Scientists Aim To Find Out