why it might be easier to teach old dogs new tricks

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why it might be easier to teach old dogs new tricks
Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Dec 16 2014

Research published by the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna suggests that over the course of their lives, dogs learn in remarkably similar ways to humans. Scientists refer to this as the “lifespan development of attentiveness.” Dog lovers refer to it as “dogs mellow with age.” I refer to it as “puppies often behave wildly and don’t mind me.”

The researchers wanted to determine if dogs make appropriate models for certain human conditions such as ADHD or Alzheimer’s disease. During the course of their study, which involved 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years, they also discovered dogs made excellent models for toddlers and teenagers. And that dogs preferred people painting walls to toys dangling from the ceiling. I’m only slightly exaggerating.

The first phase of the Viennese veterinary researchers’ experiment was to determine “social attentiveness.” For all you non-scientists, I interpret that to mean if a dog showed more interest in a living person moving about than a non-living thing moving about. To determine this, the scientists put a Border Collie in an empty room. Without warning, a toy would silently drop from the ceiling. They measured how long it took for the dog to notice the toy and how long before they got bored looking at it.

In part two of this phase, they took the same dogs in the same room and had a familiar person enter with a paint roller in hand. The person ignored the dog and began painting. After they compared stopwatches, the scientists found the dogs paid attention to the paint roller-toting folks longer than the ceiling-tethered toys. But these erudite Europeans weren’t done analyzing the data just yet. They made one more, er, startling observation.

"So-called social attentiveness was more pronounced in all dogs than ‘non-social’ attentiveness. The dogs generally tended to react by watching the person with the object for longer than an object on its own. 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." concluded lead author Lisa Wallis.

In part two of the experiment, people threw treats on the floor. The scientists measured how long it took for the dogs to find the food and how long it took for the dogs to make eye contact with the person who threw the food after finding it. Say that twenty times fast because that’s how many times the people had to repeat this experiment. There was also a clicker used and a bunch of complicated statistical analysis.

After all the throwing, staring, and clicking was done, the scientists and their mathematics concluded that sensorimotor abilities (eye-nose-mouth coordination) and learning this “task” peaked with middle-aged dogs, ages 3 to 6. Take that, all you young whippersnappers!

The final conclusion from this groundbreaking experiment was that young dogs had a harder time remaining attentive. Dogs 1 to 2 years of age tended to take longer to react to the clicker part of the experiment than adult dogs. While it may have taken the younger dogs slightly longer to learn the new trick, when they did learn it they progressed faster than many older dogs. Wallis was quoted saying, "Thus, dogs in puberty have great potential for learning and therefore trainability."

Have you tried busting the “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” myth? Share your experience in the comments below!