Attention Changes With Age

Dogs and humans follow similar path
By Karen B. London PhD, May 2014, Updated June 2021

If you think that your dog has changed in his tendency to pay attention to you over time, you are probably right. A new study is the first to describe the developmental changes in dogs’ attention over their entire life.

In the study “Lifespan development of attentiveness in domestic dogs: drawing parallels with humans”, scientists studied 145 Border Collies from the ages of 6 months to almost 14 years old. Dogs were placed in 7 groups, reflecting these developmental periods: late puppyhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle age, late adulthood, senior, and geriatric.

The researchers concluded that dogs (at least of this breed) show predictable changes in attentiveness, which they define as the ability to choose to process some environmental stimuli over others, as they age. Their major findings were:

  • Dogs of all ages attend more to people with objects than to objects alone.
  • Older dogs are less interested in novel objects in the environment than younger dogs are.
  • Dogs between 3 and 6 years of age were fastest to return their attention to a person after finding food on the floor.
  • Adolescent dogs improve their performance at attention tasks more rapidly than other age groups. So, while these young dogs may not give their attention quickly to a person on the first trial, when rewarded for doing so, they get better after just a few repetitions.
  • The changes in attention over time seen in these dogs are similar to the patterns observed in humans, which means that dogs may provide good models for studying the phenomenon.

Have you noticed changes in your dog’s attention habits over time?

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life