Everyone is familiar with the old saying, “Use it or lose it,” which seems to be one of the more widely accepted views on mental acuity. It’s why doctors who specialize in brain health often recommend playing mentally stimulating games, such as Sudoku, as a form of exercise to keep the mind sharp.
So, with humans and dogs sharing some commonalities in terms of brain composition and functionality, it begs the question of whether brain-teaser exercises like those humans use to keep their cognitive skills in top shape could have a similar effect for dogs. Recently, a team of cognitive biologists from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, set out to find the answer.
The researchers created a series of challenges for canine test subjects (including 100 border collies and 115 dogs of different breeds) to solve through the use of a touch-screen. The challenges, which the team described as “dog Sudoku,” focus on the use of images instead of numbers to test the dogs’ memory.
The dogs learned how to play the brain games through three stages of training. For the first stage, each dog was introduced to the touchscreen where the exercises would appear. After that, the dogs were taught to associate certain presses on the touchscreen with a food reward through the use of food paste applied directly to the screen. In the last stage, the food paste was taken away to teach the dog to press the screen with his nose instead of licking it, and treats were dispensed through a pipe beneath the monitor.
After the training had been completed, the dogs were ready to try their hand (or in this case, their snouts) at the actual exercise. At the beginning, a yellow dot shows up on the screen. Once the dog touches his nose to the dot, he is rewarded with a treat from the pipe. The dot would then change locations on the screen, and the dog would be rewarded for accurate presses.
When the dog became familiar enough with the game, the difficulty was increased. In the final stage, he was shown two images on the screen and expected to select the correct image in order to receive his reward. Inaccurate presses resulted in a blank screen and no reward, so most dogs quickly came to understand the rules of the game.
The game went over exceptionally well with both the participants and their owners—only six dogs dropped out of the program prematurely. Many owners noted that their dogs appeared excited when it was time for their testing, and some owners drove their dogs great distances just to participate each week.
These tests relied primarily on the feedback of dog owners for results, but the positive response has encouraged the team to go ahead with more in-depth testing in the future. Since dogs often live less demanding, lower-energy lives in their older age, they can become apathetic and sedentary. But this form of mental exercise seems to have the potential to keep their brains occupied with new concepts, stimulation, and training.
“Touchscreen interaction is usually analysed in young dogs. But we could show old dogs also respond positively to this cognitive training method,” said Ludwig Huber, senior author of the study.
“Above all, the prospect of a reward is an important factor to motivate the animals to do something new or challenging.
“The positive feeling created by solving a mental challenge is comparable to the feeling older people have when they learn something new, doing something they enjoy.”
There is hope that the game could also alert owners to the presence of Canine Cognitive Disorder, a neurological condition similar to Alzheimer’s, at its earliest and most treatable stages. The team also noted in their study that a version of the touch screen game could make its way into homes at some point, which would be an excellent development for older dogs everywhere.