Dogs' Attention Declines with Age - But Training Helps

Older dogs with a history of lifelong training perform better on measures of attention.

Reward-based training protects older dogs - like this Border collie - from declines in attention
Photo: Mary Lynn Strand / Shutterstock

We know that as people get older, they may experience cognitive decline including in attention. We are used to hearing that doing lots of different activities that engage the brain may help to ward off some of these changes. It turns out that may also be the case for dogs.

As dogs get older, they experience a decline in attention just as older people do. But lifelong training can help to prevent this decline, according to research published last year by scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna. This is good news, because attention is important for human-canine communication and for other processes.

The study took pet dogs aged between 6 and just over 14 years. They were divided into 3 age groups: late adulthood (between 6 and 8 years), seniors (8 up until 10 years), and geriatric (10 years or over). There were 75 Border collies (59 of which were tested in an earlier study) and 110 dogs of other breeds and mixed-breeds.

They all took part in two experiments that were designed to be naturalistic such that the dogs did not need any prior training. The owners completed a questionnaire that included the dog’s participation in 13 different types of training, including puppy class, obedience, agility, service dog training, hunting/nose work, trick training/dog dancing, and sheep dog training.

The first experiment tested the extent to which a social or non-social stimulus could get and keep the dog’s attention. The non-social stimulus was a toy attached to some wire so that it could be moved up and down in front of the dog for 1 minute. The social stimulus was a person who came in, kept her back to the dog, and painted an imaginary wall for 1 minute.

A dog takes part in a study of the effects of training on attention in older dogs
A dog taking part in the first experiment. Photo: The Clever Dog Lab, Messerli Institute

The results showed that senior and geriatric dogs took longer to look at both stimuli than those in late adulthood, and there was no effect of lifelong training on this. All of the dogs looked for longer at the person than at the toy.

Sustained attention declined with age and was worst in the geriatric dogs. But dogs with a high level of lifelong training kept their attention on the stimulus for longer than those with a low level of training.

Durga Chapagain, first author of the paper, said,
“The decrement of sustained attention in the older dogs is due to the repetitive, monotonous and non-arousing nature of the task, leading to a decrease in endogenous attentional control as the task advances.” 
The second experiment looked at selective attention. Each dog took part in a 5-minute clicker training session. At the very beginning, the experimenter called the dog to her and threw a piece of sausage on the floor. Then, every time the dog made eye contact with her, she clicked and then threw a piece of sausage on the floor. If the dog lost interest, she crinkled the plastic bag. We all know that's a good way to get a dog's attention!

This task requires the dog to switch attention from making eye contact with the person to finding the food on the floor.

Even older dogs can learn new tricks, as shown in this study of aging of attentiveness
A dog learning to make eye contact during the clicker training session. Photo: The Clever Dog Lab, Messerli Institute

Unlike in humans, age did not affect selective attention in this task.

Dogs with higher scores for lifelong training and also dogs with prior experience of clicker training made eye contact faster than those with low levels of lifelong training and those with no specific experience of clicker training.

Older dogs took longer to find the food on the floor, with geriatric dogs taking the longest, and this ties in with previous work on aging in dogs. There were no differences due to lifelong training in the time to find food, but dogs with prior clicker training experience were quicker to find the food than those without. The clicker-trained dogs had more experience at looking for food after the click, by definition, and the researchers say they may also have increased anticipation of food.

They point out that all kinds of training involve the dog looking at the human. From these results, it’s not possible to separate the effects of clicker training specifically from other kinds of training, as clicker training contributed to the lifelong training scores.

It is probably no surprise that dogs with prior experience at clicker training did better at the clicker training, but it is worth noting that all of the dogs improved at the task of making eye contact during the 5 minute session. So it shows that you can train an old dog new tricks.

And of course the fact that dogs with more lifelong training did better on this selective attention task is very promising.

Friederike Range, senior author of the paper, said,
“Dogs with a high lifelong training score reacted faster in both measures of attention. This result is indeed a convincing proof for dog-owners to engage their dogs in different forms of physical and mental training, if they want their furry friends to retain their attentional abilities during aging.” 
For the Border collie owners out there who want to know how this breed compared to the other dogs, there were actually few differences, but the Border collies were faster at finding the food dropped on the floor. Because there was a wide variety of breeds and mixed-breeds in the other group, it’s possible that a larger sample size might have found other differences.

This is a fascinating study that suggests reward-based training has cognitive benefits that persist into the dog’s later life.

The paper is open access and you can read it via the link below, and you can follow the Clever Dog Lab on Facebook.

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Chapagain, D., Virányi, Z., Wallis, L. J., Huber, L., Serra, J., & Range, F. (2017). Aging of attentiveness in border collies and other pet dog breeds: the protective benefits of lifelong training. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 9, 100.

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Proper Socialization and Listen Harder

The latest in the 'better world' series about dogs and cats.

These are the latest images in the series about how to make the world better for dogs and how to make the world better for cats.

If you would like to share them, simply mouse over the image, or you can share direct from my Facebook or Twitter feeds if you prefer.

I have not had much time for blogging lately because of other commitments, but I am working on some future posts. Be sure to check back next week!

Meanwhile, if there are any topics you would like to see covered on Companion Animal Psychology, please let me know either in the comments below, or subscribers can simply hit the reply button to send me an email. 

The Pet People to Follow in 2018

The canine and feline scientists, pet professionals, bloggers and organizations to follow on social media in 2018.

The best dog and cat people to follow on social media, illustrated by a tabby cat about to pounce on a toy
Photo: Ramon Espelt Photography (Shutterstock)

Are you looking for some new accounts to follow in 2018? I’ve updated my list of some of the best people and organizations to follow on Twitter and Facebook if you’re interested in companion animals, science, and the human-animal bond.

Not only do they produce great content of their own, they also have a varied feed that includes news, research and interesting snippets from around the web.

I’ve given links to Twitter and Facebook accounts so you can follow however you choose (some are more active on one than the other). The first link is always to Twitter so this is like a giant #FF. The second link is to Facebook if they are on there too.

The list is in no particular order, so read through and see who you would like to follow.

And please consider following me too (Twitter, Facebook) if you don’t already!

Of course, there are many talented people in the world, so please add your own suggestions for people or organizations to follow in the comments below.

Dr. John Bradshaw – anthrozoologist and best-selling author of The Animals Among Us, Dog Sense (In Defence of Dogs), Cat Sense, and co-author of The Trainable Cat

Dr. Sarah Ellis (Facebook) – co-author of the The Trainable Cat and feline behaviour specialist at International Cat Care

Dr. Hal Herzog – Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals .

Dr. Alexandra Horowitz (Facebook) – canine cognition scientist and best-selling author of Inside of a Dog and Being a Dog.

Family Dog Project (Facebook) – the canine behaviour research group shares frequent updates on the latest scientific research from their team and others around the globe

Julie Hecht (Dog Spies) – don't miss the fantastic posts on canine science at Julie's Scientific American blog Dog Spies

Mia Cobb (Do You Believe in dog?) – now a canine science community with guest posts from young scientists on the blog and a feed full of news about canine science, including opportunities to participate

International Cat Care (Facebook) – a great resource for cat lovers, with information and advice for owners and professionals, as well as cute cat pictures too

Dr. Ilana Reisner (Facebook) – this veterinary behaviourist regularly deconstructs dog bite incidents to teach you how to prevent dog bites, and shares interesting and evidence-based items on animal behaviour and training

Dr. Pete Wedderburn (Facebook) – veterinary advice and news, regular Telegraph columnist, author of Pet Subjects, and you’ll find a large library of articles on his website too.

Dr. Mikel Delgado (Feline Minds) – Certified Cat Behaviour Consultant and PhD candidate shares information about cats and squirrels, with especially useful information on food puzzles for cats

Ingrid Johnson (Fundamentally Feline) –  education about cats and gorgeous photos from this Certified Cat Behaviour Consultant

BC SPCA (Facebook) – in amongst the photos of adoptable animals there is plenty of advice on how to care for pets, including #TipTuesday videos

Maddie’s Fund (Facebook) – lots of tips to help shelter dogs and cats, along with social media and website advice for the people running the shelters #ThankstoMaddie

The Academy for Dog Trainers (Facebook) – for links to top-notch dog training advice from Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers (“the Harvard of dog training”)

Kristi Benson (Facebook) – dog trainer, sled dog rescuer, and Academy tutor, with a funny and entertaining dog training blog

Pet Professional Guild (Facebook) – advice on dog training and news from the organization for force free pet professionals

IAABC – information on behaviour problems in pets and links to journal articles and mentorships from the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants

Dr. Jessica Hekman DVM (Facebook) – the author of The Dog Zombie blog is a vet with a PhD in genomics, a postdoctoral associate at the Karlsson Lab, and a great explainer of canine genetics

Darwin's Dogs – using citizen science to study dog evolution and find new insights into dog and human psychiatric diseases

Dr. Brian Hare (Facebook) – information on animal minds and evolution, especially dogs and bonobos, from the associate professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, co-author of The Genius of Dogs and founder of Dognition

Dr. Gregory Berns – scientist who uses fMRI to study dogs’ brains, author of How Dogs Love Us and What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Pam Johnson-Bennett (Facebook) – cat news and tips from the best-selling author of Think Like a Cat and host of Animal Planet’s Psycho Kitty

Susan Little DVM – this veterinarian specializes in feline medicine and has a twitter feed packed with intriguing facts about cats

Dr. Melanie Rock – information about non-human animals and health, including dog parks and dog bite prevention, from this Associate Professor at the University of Calgary

Martha Smith-Blackmore DVM – this compassionate expert in veterinary forensics is a Faculty Fellow at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and shares information on animal cruelty and animal welfare

Dr. Malcolm Campbell – biologist and Vice President (Research) at the University of Guelph, follow Malcolm for science tweets and #SixIncredibleThingsBeforeBreakfast that will blow your mind about animals and the universe

Katzenworld Blog (Facebook) – for chatty posts, product reviews and cute cat photos, with some articles on cat health and behaviour too

The Centre for Shelter Dogs (Facebook) – part of the Cummings Veterinary School at Tufts University and brings you lots of resources to help shelter dogs

Anthrozoology Research Group (Facebook)  – shares links to interesting anthrozoological research by themselves and from around the globe

Dr. Sam Gaines – head of the Companion Animal dept at the RSPCA, with lots of tips to improve animal welfare and #EndBSL

Dr. Rachel Casey – veterinary behaviourist and animal welfare scientist at Dogs Trust, so look out for lots of great info on canine behaviour

UCD Vet Behaviour Services – recent research and behaviour information from the Behaviour Service at UCDavis

Dr. Chris Blazina – psychologist with a special interest in understanding men and their canine best friends, shares interesting links about human animal interaction

Dr. Alan McElligott – tweets about his research and about animal behaviour, welfare and cognition generally; look out especially for the entertaining goat stories

Dr. Marc Bekoff – animal emotions, moral behaviour, and conservation topics from the author of The Emotional Lives of Animals and Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, plus a very active Psychology Today blog

ASA Animals Society (Facebook) – the American Sociological Association looks at the complex relationships between humans and animals

Dr. Marc Abraham (Facebook) – animal welfare campaigner and veterinarian of the year, founder of Pupaid (Facebook), a UK group campaigning against puppy farms, with regular games of #GuessTheBreed

Dr. Sophia Yin (Facebook) – the account of the company set up by the late Dr. Sophia Yin, CattleDog Publishing, shares her writings and educational links on animal behaviour.

Dr Marty Becker DVM (Facebook) veterinary information and stories about the human-animal bond from America’s veterinarian, found of Fear Free (Facebook) to help dogs and cats have a better experience at the veterinarian

Montreal SPCA (Facebook) – SPCA and campaigners against Breed Specific Legislation and for better animal welfare, with news in English and French

Dr. Emily Blackwell  – clinical animal behaviourist, scientist at the University of Bristol, and TV expert, shares animal welfare and animal behaviour science and tips.

Dr. Jenny Stavisky – shelter vet and epidemiologist as well as uplifting tweets about how Vets in the Community help the most vulnerable pets

Dr. Sebastiaan Bol – researcher and found of Cowboy Cat Ranch, look out for all the cute kitty photos

Dr. Lauren Finka – postdoctoral researcher studying pain in cats

Dr. Naomi Harvey – zoologist, ethologist and research fellow at the Itchy Dog Project

Dr. Kat Littlewood (Facebook) – small animal veterinarian and PhD student especially interested in cats and animal welfare, with an interesting blog too 

Dr. Sandra McCune – scientific leader in Human Animal Interaction at WALTHAM

Kim Monteith - manager of animal welfare at the BC SPCA and volunteer at Charlie’s Food Bank helping the pets of the homeless in Vancouver

Dr Kate Mornement (Facebook) – PhD-qualified behaviourist at Pets Behaving Badly – Solutions with Dr Kate with an  interesting blog on dogs, cats and parrots

Dr. Carri Westgarth – research fellow in human animal interaction and dog trainer, specializing in research on dog walking and dog bites

Dr. Zoe Belshaw – evidence-based approaches to veterinary science from this veterinary specialist at the University of Nottingham

Dr. Emma Milne (Facebook) – the vet behind vets against brachycephalism, author and animal welfare enthusiast 

Dr. Patrizia Piotti – postdoctoral research on dog behaviour and cognition 

Taryn M Graham (Facebook) – PhD candidate interested in how dogs can help promote health in cities, and founder of PAWSitive Leadership which takes certified dogs into classrooms to teach children.

Dr. Christy Hoffman (Facebook) – regular updates on anthrozoology from the Canisius Canine research team

Dr. Caroline Spence – academic interested in animal welfare and sentience and we understand animal minds

Dr. Debra Horwitz – veterinary behaviourist and author of Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult Clinical Companion: Canine and Feline Behaviour

Cats Protection (Facebook) – cat videos and advice on how to care for your cat as well as lots of cute pics from this large UK charity 

HartpuryABW – a busy feed full of news, info and jobs via Dr. Tamara Montrose and the Hartpury Animal Behaviour and Welfare group

Dr. Anne Fawcett (Facebook) – small animal veterinarian with a special interest in ethics and a blog that looks at owners, veterinarians and the human-animal bond

Dr. Vanessa Rohlf (Facebook) – compassion fatigue consultant shares information on coping with animal bereavement and resiliency for people who work with animals

Dr. Nik Taylor – research and news on the sociology of human-animal interaction

Maureen Backman (Mutt About Town) – a philosophical approach to reward-based dog training, plus lots of useful info on muzzles via the Muzzle Up project

Dr. Christian Nawroth – postdoctoral researcher in animal cognition including goats and pigs

Kathy Sdao - certified applied animal behaviourist and dog trainer and author of Plenty in Life is Free

Your Pit Bull and You (Facebook) –  Run by Lori Nanan and Lisa Skavienski, YPBandY is a charity that advocates for pit bulls and spreads the word on positive reinforcement dog training for all dogs. 

Malena de Martini (Facebook) – training and resources on separation anxiety from the author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs.

Tracy Krulik (Facebook) – dog trainer and founder of iSpeakDog which aims to help you understand canine body language 

Laura Monaco Torelli – dog trainer and Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, with a feed full of interesting dog training and animal behaviour info

James Oxley – independent researcher on dog bites and rabbits who shares HAI information and conferences

Clare Ellis - PhD candidate interested in animal welfare and the reasons for relinquishment of rabbits

Janetta Harvey (Facebook) – tireless campaigner against puppy farms and sharer of information on dogs in general and Schnauzers in particular.

Joanna Berger – animal behaviourist and trainer who shares lots of information on behaviour and welfare for dogs, cats and birds

Jemima Harrison – campaigner for better health and welfare for purebred dogs and the director of Pedigree Dogs Exposed

Now it's your turn. Who would you add to the list? Add a comment below to share your favourite people to follow. And don't forget to subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

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Let Them Sniff and Early Socialization

Two recent posts considered how to make the world better for dogs and how to make the world better for cats. An incredible set of experts gave their answers to the questions, with wonderful ideas for a better world for our animals.

I am making images for each answer to share on social media.

A dalmatian sniffs the snowy grass

These are the first two. I am working my way through in somewhat random order (not truly random because if I happen to see a photo that will just go with a particular text, I'll run with it). I am sharing them here for those who do not follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

A 5-6 week old foster kitten reaches out for a toy

Of course, you can read the posts in full and see the texts from which these quotes are taken: how to make the world better for dogs and how to make the world better for cats.

How to make the world better for cats has also been translated into Japanese for the website If you have Japanese friends who you think will like it, please share it with them. Thank you to Saramu Momma MSc and Risa Yoshida for the translation.

Stay up to date and subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology.

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