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Scientists prove old dogs can learn new tricks. Here's why that's a good thing

Touchscreen games may help aging canines avoid cognitive decline
Image: Senior dogs are usually perfectly integrated into our lives and we often forgive them any disobedience or stubbornness.
Senior dogs are usually perfectly integrated into our lives and we often forgive them any disobedience or stubbornness.Africa Studio / Shutterstock / Africa Studio

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but researchers in Austria beg to differ. Their experiments show that canines of all ages respond positively to touchscreen games — and they think that something akin to "dog Sudoku" might help keep pets mentally sharp even as their physical abilities decline.

"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," Dr. Ludwig Huber, a cognitive biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the senior author of a paper about the research, said in a written statement. "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."

For their research, conducted between 2010 and 2017, the scientists tested 265 dogs and 20 wolves at facilities in Austria and Hungary. The animals — mostly pets — were trained to push their snouts against a touchscreen in response to flowers, teddy bears, and other imagery displayed there.

It took weeks of training, but eventually even older dogs were able to reliably press the right image to receive a food treat.

"The fact that the older dogs were able to learn such abstract and sometimes difficult tasks was very encouraging," Dr. Lisa Wallis, a cognitive biologist with the Senior Family Dog Project at Eotvos Lorand Universtiy in Budapest, Hungary, and the paper's first author, told NBC News MACH in an email.

She added that the dogs enjoyed the touchscreen training sessions and that their owners observed "positive benefits of the training in their dogs' everyday lives."

Image: A dog interacts with a computer game
A dog interacts with a computer game.Messerli Research Institute / Vetmeduni Vienna

The latter observation led Wallis to conclude that touchscreens might prove useful for enriching older dogs' lives and helping keep their minds sharp. It might also work to calm dogs and keep them quiet at veterinary clinics, boarding kennels, and other institutional settings.

Other experts agreed about the likely benefits of brain training for senior dogs.

"Based on these findings — and the success this research has had in training dogs to use touchscreen computers — it seems like brain training with touchscreens has the potential to help preserve old dogs' cognitive skills," said Angie Johnston, a doctoral student in psychology at Yale University and a researcher at the university's Canine Cognition Center. But, she added, more research is needed to confirm the new findings.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, a retired professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a noted expert on animal behavior, was similarly upbeat in his assessment of the research. "I think lifelong brain-training is essential..." he told MACH in an email. "If one can get them to play these games, I think it's surely worth a try. Nothing would be lost and there's a lot that could be gained."

The scientists hope their research will lead to the development of commercial versions of tablet games for dogs. "We are not too far off designing the hardware and software necessary to produce a cheaper version of the touchscreen that could be marketed for home use," Wallis said in the email.

The paper was published in the journal "Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction."