Dogs Taught to Play a Computer Game, You'll Never Guess What Happened Next

aging dogs mental stimulation

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers in Vienna have developed a “dog sudoku” interactive computer game to help older dogs maintain their cognitive function
  • The owners of the dogs who participated in the study were amazed at the progress their pets made and their excitement at playing the game
  • The researchers hope their study results will generate interest in developing a similar interactive game for home use
  • They also see the potential for the data they collect to be used to assess cognitive function in individual dogs

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Just as humans in their senior years are encouraged to engage in activities that keep their minds sharp, we’re learning that aging dogs also benefit from regular mental stimulation.

The bad news is dogs can’t play Words with Friends with their doggy pals, or work the New York Times crossword puzzle. The good news is it’s easier to challenge your dog’s brain than your own, and cognitive scientists at the Clever Dog Lab at the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna in Austria are testing different approaches to learn what works best.

Canine Study Participants Learn to Play ‘Dog Sudoku’

In a recent experiment, the researchers trained dogs to respond to a touchscreen in a game they call “dog sudoku.” The study involved 100 pet Border Collies and another 115 dogs of varying breeds.1 In phase one of the experiment, the dogs were introduced to the touchscreen and attached treat dispenser, and were trained to approach the screen rather than paw at the treat dispenser below it.

In phase two, the dogs learned that a specific image on the touchscreen was associated with food. When the colorful circle appeared, the dogs’ owners would stick a glob of dog food on the touchscreen over the circle, and the dogs would lick it off. In phase three, the dog food was removed, panels were attached to either side of the screen to prevent distractions, and the dogs were trained to press their nose to the circle instead of licking it.

When the dogs touched the yellow circle on the screen with their nose, a treat was released from the dispenser below the screen. The yellow circle then moved to a different position on the screen, and when the dog touched it, another treat was dispensed.

In the final phase of the experiment, two images appeared on the touchscreen. When the dogs selected the right image with their nose, a treat dispensed. When they chose the wrong image, the screen went blank and the exercise was repeated.

Study Shows Older Dogs Can Learn Abstract, Sometimes Difficult Tasks 

Some dog parents drove long distances to participate in the study, and some even brought their dogs in twice a week. The Vienna researchers relied on the owners to provide feedback as to whether playing the game improved their pet’s quality of life. After several visits, the owners reported amazement at the progress their dogs had made, as well as at the excitement they showed when they knew they were going to their training sessions.

"The fact that the older dogs were able to learn such abstract and sometimes difficult tasks was very encouraging," said Lisa Wallis, a lead author of the study.

And according to senior study author Ludwig Huber:

"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 maximizing learning opportunities.”2

Researchers Hope to Generate Interest in the Development of a Home Version of ‘Dog Sudoku’

A computer was used to interact with the dogs because it’s more consistent than a human, i.e., the touchscreen is available to “play” at any time and it reliably delivers treats. The researchers hope their study results will encourage software developers and interested dog owners to consider future cooperation in getting the interactive game designed for home use.

"Our scientific approach could result in an exciting citizen science project to increase the understanding of the importance of lifelong learning in animals," says Wallis.

Future lab experiments will measure whether interacting with the touchscreen decreases dogs’ cortisol levels (stress hormone levels) and increases levels of dopamine (the pleasure hormone). The scientists also see the potential for the data they collect to be used to assess cognitive function in individual dogs. Since some older dogs develop canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), earlier diagnosis may help veterinarians and pet parents treat mental decline and halt or slow its progression.

10 Tips to Help Your Older Dog Stay Mentally Sharp

Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil, which are critical for cognitive health. The perfect fuel for aging pets is a healthy variety of fresh, living food suitable for your carnivorous dog.

Eliminate all refined carbohydrates (grains, potatoes and legumes) to allow more room for excellent-quality protein, full of critical amino acids and antioxidant-rich veggies. Feeding carbohydrates means your dog’s insulin levels will be much higher.

Research shows high insulin levels speed aging and contribute to a variety of degenerative diseases. Eliminating extruded foods (kibble) means your dog won’t be consuming contaminants commonly found in processed pet food or the toxic byproducts of the manufacturing process, including heterocyclic amines and acrylamides.

You can improve digestion and absorption of nutrients by feeding a less processed diet, not to mention improving your pet’s microbiome, which has been linked to improved cognitive health in humans.

Stop vaccinating and start titering. Vaccines don’t “wear out” over time, and more vaccines mean more adjuvants and heavy metals that can accumulate in your pet’s brain.

Keep your dog’s body and mind active with regular exercise appropriate for her age and physical condition, and mental stimulation (puzzles and treat-release toys can be beneficial). Make sure she has opportunities to socialize with other pets and people.

Provide a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement as a safe and effective way to stall or improve mental decline. Consult your holistic veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog. There are also commercial cognitive support products available.

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older pets. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support.

Other supplements to consider are decaffeinated green tea, resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), which protects against free radical damage, and beta-amyloid deposits, ginkgo biloba, gotu kola and phosphatidylserine — a nutritional supplement that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits. Consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.

Keep your dog at a healthy size — overweight pets are at significant increased risk for disease as they age.

Maintain your dog's dental health.

I recommend twice-yearly veterinary visits for pets no matter the age, but this becomes even more important for dogs getting up in years. Keeping abreast of your animal companion’s physical and mental changes as he ages is the best way to catch any disease process early.

Ask your vet to perform a blood test to check your dog’s internal organ health to make sure you are identifying possible issues early on. There’s also a blood test that measures inflammatory fats you may want to consider. You can find more information at VRD Health.

These recommendations won’t be tremendously helpful for a pet in the advanced stages of cognitive decline, which is why it’s so important to diagnose and begin treating the problem as early as possible. Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive disease that can’t be cured, but early diagnosis and intervention can slow mental decline and offer your aging pet good quality of life.