Issue 114

Brain Games For Older Dogs Keep Their Minds Young – Here’s The Proof

I've owned four old dogs and each one has taught me something new to help the next. Not just about quirks that might become exaggerated as they get older, but more specifically about what to do to try and keep them in the best health possible, both mentally and physically.

But with Mia, my 12 year old Rottweiler, I think I might have accidentally stumbled upon the best thing - and a new scientific study reinforces why this might be.

Two years ago, just as pet tech was really taking off we reviewed a pet treat cam. It sounds ridiculous but it's entirely true to say that it changed our lives, and what we now know is that it could have also played a role in helping Mia to feeling younger than her years because it kept her brain active and engaged.

At that time, Mia, a somewhat sprightly but lazy 10 year old, had gone through a cancer battle a year before and had also lost her best pal, Chloe. And although she's always been quite conservative with her energy, she had noticeably slowed down.

'It's hard to say when her love of food (and greed) kicked in'

With Chloe, my last old dog, Mia had a very different relationship to the one she now has with the two younger boys, Chris and Danny, that are a part of our family.


Mia and Chloe

With Chloe, Mia was quite gentle and she didn't need to overstep, but with the boys, Chris and Danny, she lets them know multiple times a day she's the boss. And enjoys doing it too, I think.

After three years, they really don't need to be told. They're well aware she's the matriarch of their circle, but she lets them know all the same, so it's possible her greed started when they came.

'Except when Chris first arrived'

On that day, for at least an hour, she forgot how to eat.

Watching biscuits crumble out of her mouth after she'd taken them but somehow had forgotten how to chew because she was fascinated by a little bundle of fur is a memory that will stay with me, and Chris presumably too because even though Mia lets him know she's in charge, he adores her.


Mia and Chris

Danny has a somewhat different relationship with Mia. He arrived with us as a fully grown adult and he challenges her, albeit cautiously sometimes.

When she stretches, shakes down and is ready to play, he is first on the scene. He knows it's time to rumble and although he towers over her, he lets her dictate the pace.


Danny

When Mia hears her pet treat cam jingle and sprints to it, he's hot on her heels and if he can get to it before her, and she can't physically move him, she is forced to wait in line.

It doesn't happen too often, normally she'll power him out of the way, but he does from time to time make her wait. If he's feeling brave.

The Petzi has two signals that 'treats are coming soon'.

The first is a solid light, which lights up on the pet treat cam and signals the app is open and active, meaning someone is likely to hit the jingle and treat buttons simultaneously within a few seconds.

The second is the jingle and it's loud enough so that whether they're inside or out, if they hear it they'll run to the Petzi to wait for the treats.

They all know the signals and Mia even thinks she can control when they happen.

If you get your phone out of your pocket in the same room as the Petzi, even completely unrelated, Mia stares at the Petzi before glancing back at you, and then again to the Petzi in anticipation, and she'll repeat as often as she needs to before you get the hint.

Now, having read a new study from a team of researchers, led by cognitive biologists from Vetmeduni Vienna, we truly believe that the pet treat cam and how she acts and reacts to it (and us near to it) has kept her more active in her senior years because she is ready to be alerted at the drop of a hat.

The study explained

As part of this new study, researchers have proposed computer interaction as a practical alternative to learning can create positive emotions for dogs and can help to slow down mental deterioration in old age, games like Sudoku or touchscreen computer games: essentially some kind of interactive game or puzzle where there's a reward at the end.

Danny in the Petzi queue behind Mia

Speaking to ScienceDaily.com, the study's first author Lisa Wallis explained that we, as owners, increasingly and often unconsciously reduce our older dog's training and mental challenges adding, "Yet this restricts the opportunities to create positive mental experiences for the animals, which remain capable of learning even in old age."

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Wallis continues, "As is the case with people, dopamine production in dogs also falls in old age, leading to a decline in memory and motivational drive. But this natural mental deterioration can be countered with the specific training of cognitive skills."

Ludwig Huber was an author on the study and also told the science website that they had seen positive results in the laboratory saying that although it does take dogs time to get used to brain games using touchscreens, it does happen - and age is no barrier.

"Touchscreen interaction is usually analysed in young dogs. But we could show that old dogs also respond positively to this cognitive training method," says senior author. "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 that older people have when they learn something new, doing something they enjoy. Regular brain training shakes not only us, but also dogs out of their apathy in old age, increasing motivation and engagement and thus maximising learning opportunities."

Their study is in the early stages. They now plan to move it from the laboratory into the home, but based on our experiences, we think the link is definitely there. Mia is our proof.

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