Pets

New tricks, indeed. Researchers test touchscreen games to combat aging in dogs

Meet some of the many pups at overcrowded Bradshaw shelter

"Our dog kennels are overflowing! (Literally, there are dogs in our cat rooms!)," said Sacramento County's Bradshaw Animal Shelter on Wednesday, Jan. 24. It is seeking fosters and adopters.
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"Our dog kennels are overflowing! (Literally, there are dogs in our cat rooms!)," said Sacramento County's Bradshaw Animal Shelter on Wednesday, Jan. 24. It is seeking fosters and adopters.

You can’t teach an old dog —

Well, wait a second.

Some early-stage research suggests that brain games for senior dogs may benefit their mental health and improve quality of life.

A study out of the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna, referenced this week by National Geographic, examined a puzzle-like training mechanism meant to keep canine minds active. Tested on a group of 215 dogs (100 border collies and 115 dogs of various other breeds), it’s being tentatively called “dog sudoku.”

The games have little in common with regular sudoku because, well, dogs can’t work with numbers and don’t have thumbs.

Instead, the dogs involved in the research were trained to use a snout-based touchscreen interface. The machine dispenses food as a reward system, with the pets interacting with on-screen images by choosing between licks and nose touches (no paws allowed).

Check out National Geographic’s video of the device in action.

In the study’s abstract, the system is referred to as dog computer interaction, or DCI. Researchers hypothesize that DCI could “improve the welfare of older dogs in particular through cognitive enrichment.”

“Previous studies have shown that ageing (sic) can be slowed by mental and physical stimulation,” the abstract continues, “and thus stopping these activities might actually lead to faster ageing in dogs, which can result in a reduction in the quality of life of the animal, and may even decrease the strength of the dog-owner bond.”

Study lead author Lisa Wallis told National Geographic that scientists and vets are seeking ways to detect, delay or prevent the onset of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, a rough equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

“The fact that the older dogs were able to learn such abstract and sometimes difficult tasks was very encouraging,” Wallis told the magazine.

The research, however, lacks some statistics and cannot yet measure if the games have a neurological impact, National Geographic reported, so the results have been monitored mostly using anecdotal evidence shared by satisfied pet owners.

Dogs’ benefit to human physical and mental health is a bit more solidly established. Their use as therapy animals is well-documented and growing in popularity as well.

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