Dog computer interactions: How playing computer games could help aged dogs
There are many amusing (and some not so amusing) videos on YouTube depicting dogs interacting with iPads or laptops resulting in various amounts of slobber and pawing, that would make the average owner think twice before giving their own dogs access to their tablets. However, a new study from a team of Scientists at the Senior Family Dog Project at ELTE University in Budapest Hungary, and the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni in Vienna Austria has indicated that brain training computer games for dogs may soon become a reality. The scientists have suggested that regular mental stimulation provided by touchscreen training could help to maintain cognitive function in old age in pet dogs.
Learning over the lifespan
Most dog owners are aware of the importance of early training and socialisation; how it can shape future behaviour and influence the relationship between the dog and its human over the dog’s lifetime. New owners are often excited to take their puppy to dogs’ school, so they can learn how to be a “good” dog. After a lot of hard work on behalf of the owner and puppy, by the end of the class the puppies graduate, and are well on their way to being deemed fit to live in human society. Too often, this is the end of the dogs training story. However, just because the dog is no longer a juvenile, does not mean it no longer requires learning opportunities! Recent studies have confirmed that a dog’s ability to learn is maintained over their lifespan, just as it is in humans. However, in the majority of cases the dogs mental capacities and need for cognitive stimulation is often not recognised by owners. Many older dogs become “couch potatoes” and like nothing better than to sleep the day away. Why not, they deserve their peace and quiet; after all, they are senior citizens right? Recent research by the Senior Family Dog Project in Budapest has uncovered a worryingly trend of decreased trainability and response to commands in aged dogs. Whether this decline is caused by the dog “forgetting” previously known commands due to impaired memory, or to the lack of training opportunities in later life is not currently known. But what is becoming increasingly clear in the human and dog literature, is the importance of lifelong learning to help retain cognitive function in old age.
Why old dogs should learn new tricks
The fact that old dogs can learn may not be news to some dog owners, but the questions of why is it important to continue learning in later life is asked far less often. By their twilight years, most senior dogs have become model members of society and have moulded themselves perfectly into our lives and our daily routine; learning is not necessary anymore, right? As we humans grow older, we tend to forget how pleasurable learning something new can be. When our brain registers a sudden and exciting discovery, a reward signal is released that we experience as a highly pleasurable moment. Our childhood and daily lives are filled with such moments of discovery. An association that leads to a solution to a difficult problem is even more rewarding. From research with animals, we know that they prefer to work for a reward, rather than receiving a reward for free, just as humans do. It is the anticipation of the coming reward that they find most motivating. Physiological measures indicate that animals experience higher positive affect (or if you like “joy”) when they are provided with opportunities to solve problems. When these positive emotional experiences are sustained or repeated, a state of “well-being” (or happiness) may ensue, which could help to improve health, and give the animal a better quality of life. The bad news is that as humans and animals age they experience a decline in dopamine neurons, which contributes to a decline in memory, motivational drive and energy to engage in exploratory behaviour, which limits their opportunities to learn in daily life. But do not despair, scientists have proposed that interventions that combine cognitive training with reinforcement learning should result in improvements in cognition and memory, as well as increased motivation and exploratory behaviour. What would this look like in our old dogs? Well, by providing repeated problem solving opportunities and utilising positive food rewards effectively, older dogs could begin to act more as they did when they were younger, showing heightened learning and pleasure responses with increased excitement and activity.
What is cognitive training for dogs?
One type of technology that can be implemented for use with pet dogs, and has already been used in humans is cognitive training utilising games played on touchscreens and iPads. The power of the touchscreen as a training tool is in its flexibility, reliability and controllability, and in its ability to provide novel motivational experiences. Once a dog has been trained to use a touchscreen, the number of cognitive training possibilities are limitless, as the stimuli (clipart, photo and even video), acoustic feedback, reward type, and cognitive paradigm tested can all be varied. So far, the touchscreen has only been used for pet dogs in a laboratory environment, apart from a few dog trainers who have been providing iPad training seminars to dog owners. But now there are plans to make this enrichment tool available to veterinary surgeries, shelters, dog training schools and day care centres, and eventually even the home environment. A session of just 30 minutes once a week provides dogs with repeated positive experiences that result in improved learning, and increases in dogs’ motivation and enthusiasm. “We have the capacity to bring “joy” to our dogs’ lives through increased learning opportunities using the touchscreen. I have helped train many family dogs and have seen first-hand the benefits of this enrichment tool,” explained first author Lisa Wallis.
The future of dog gaming
While the scientist are still investigating the long-term impact of touchscreen use, they are hopeful that collaborations between researchers in animal-computer interaction, software developers, and cognitive scientists could soon result in the development of the hardware and software necessary to make the touchscreen technology accessible to the public.
Whilst nothing can replace spending quality time with your dog in nature, when our arthritic older dogs get harder to motivate to go out on a cold, wet and windy day, we might wish there were other ways to entertain them and engage their minds. For the average owner the touchscreen can help fulfil their dogs need for cognitive stimulation and additionally create a state of pleasant anticipation in their dogs. After all, we humans increasingly rely on technology to improve our happiness levels; why not adapt these methods for our dogs in order to increase their wellbeing.
Wallis, L; Range, F; Kubinyi, E; Chapagain, D; Serra, J; Huber, L (2017): Utilising dog-computer interactions to provide mental stimulation in dogs especially during ageing. 1-12.-Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction; NOV 21-23, 2017; Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. (ISBN: 978-145035364-9) DOI: 10.1145/3152130.3152146
Originally published in the ACM Digital Library – https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3152146&dl=ACM&coll=DL&CFID=1025667842&CFTOKEN=64572395
But available in PDF format via authors copy from –
Senior Family Dog Project
ELTE University, Budapest, Hungary
+44 775 4530999
Messerli Research Institute
University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna), Austria
T +43 (1) 25077 2680