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Older Dogs Were Able To Learn New Tricks In Recent Study

Feb 03, 2016 01:17 PM EST
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While it is often said that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, a recent study from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, suggests there is hope for older hounds -- but younger dogs still learn faster.

Using a series of touchscreen tests, researchers examined the cognitive abilities -- learning, logical reasoning and memory - of 95 Border Collies ranging in age from five months to 13 years, according to a news release

"Border Collies have a reputation for being fast learners. They were bred over generations for characteristics that are important in shepherding," Friederike Range, study director, explained in the release. "In recent years they have become a popular breed of pet dog, probably because they are so easy to train. This is why we had access to enough test animals from this breed."

The dogs were divided into five age groups and tested in a series of four tasks, which revealed differences in cognitive ability depending on age.

For instance, in the first test the dogs had to correctly select four from a total of eight abstract pictures on a touchscreen. Two pictures were shown to the dog at one time: One had a positive association - the dogs were rewarded with a food treat for touching this picture - while the second picture had a negative association, where the dogs were put in a timeout rather than given a treat. The four "positive" pictures were presented in different combinations with the "negative" pictures.

"Older dogs required more trials than younger ones before they were able to solve the task correctly. The test also showed that older dogs are less flexible in their way of thinking than younger ones. As in people, older dogs find it more difficult to change old habits or what they have learned," Lisa Wallis, the study's first author, said in the university's release.

After reaching a certain level of proficiency on the first test, the Border Collies were again shown two pictures on the touchscreen. While on of the pictures was completely new, the other was a familiar image from the previous test where it had a negative association.

The expectation, researchers say, was that the dogs would select the novel image, demonstrating the logical ability to choose by ruling out certain options, otherwise known as exclusion. In this case, the older dogs performed better, while younger individuals were unable to master the 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," Range added in the release.

Six months after the first learning tests, researchers tested the dog's long-term memory skills by repeating the experiment using the same eight abstract pictures as before. This revealed no significant age differences, because nearly all the dogs remembered the correct pictures as positive.

Ultimately, researchers say the results of their study provide measures that could one day be used to detect cognitive deficits in Border Collies.

Their findings were recently published in the journal AGE.

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