Dog-Computer Interactions

The potential to improve the welfare of older dogs
By Karen B. London PhD, February 2018

As dogs age, they may spend more time sleeping and less time participating in activities that were so common in their youth. Sometimes, guardians decrease or even stop playing, walking, training and engaging in other activities their dogs enjoy. The change in guardian engagement is sometimes due to less positive feelings by people towards their aging dogs. Sometimes it’s just because people assume that the golden years of their dogs should be spent quietly relaxing. However, the efforts to maintain a high quality of life for older dogs as well as a strong bond with their people that are an important piece of helping dogs age well often involve an active lifestyle for the mind and body.

There is plenty of evidence that continued activity and social engagement that provide physical or mental exercise are helpful for maintaining cognitive function in aging dogs. With this in mind, a recent study explored the possibility that there are benefits of using touchscreen technology if the goal is to help dogs stay happy and mentally sharp as they age. It was based on a study with people experiencing age-related mild cognitive impairment that found that cognitive training with a memory game on an iPad improved their cognitive function.

In “Utilising dog-computer interactions to provide mental stimulation in dogs especially during ageing”, researchers used touchscreens to offer dogs the opportunity to play games in which correct choices resulted in food rewards. Since dogs (and other animals that have been studied) find food even more rewarding if they have earned it rather than offered it for free, the procedure has great potential to improve dogs’ quality of life and well-being. This is especially true for older dogs whose opportunities for cognitive enrichment may be limited due to guardian choice or physical decline.

This paper was published along with other work based on presentations at a conference about Computer-Animal Interactions and described the apparatus and procedure for training dogs with the touchscreen apparatus. It also proposed that the system has the potential to improve the welfare of dogs—especially older ones—through cognitive enrichment.

Dogs in the study first had to be trained to touch the screen for a treat, then to touch it a certain place, and finally to choose between options in order to be correct. Once that base level of training was accomplished, dogs could be introduced to more challenging cognitive tests.

This work with 265 dogs (and 20 wolves) who were taught to use the touchscreens demonstrated the potential of touchscreen games and puzzles to have a positive impact on dogs of all ages and especially older dogs. The guardians of the dogs in the study reported that their dogs became increasingly happy with each visit to the lab for training sessions and that the whole experience led to benefits in their everyday lives.

Many of the guardians of dogs in the study were surprised at how tired their dogs were after their cognitive training sessions, and began to buy in to the importance of mental exercise. The unintended result of this was that many of them invested time and effort into additional forms of cognitive work with their dogs. The additional enrichment was good for the dogs’ quality of life. Many guardians became more engaged with their dogs and proud of their accomplishments, which improved the bond between people and their dogs. (This may be an effect of involvement in any sort of study and may not indicate that touchscreens in particular as a tool lead to improved relationships.)

The authors propose that future work should explore the effects of touchscreens on dogs in specific ways: levels of cortisol (as a measure of stress) and dopamine (as a measure of motivation), the effects on the dog-human relationship, changes in learning ability and problem solving, and the emotional effects on dogs.

The researchers hope that their studies could lead to the development of commercial tablet games for dogs. The idea that touchscreens may help improve the cognitive function and well-being of aging dogs is intriguing, but there are concerns. One issue is that people may rely on these tablets to occupy their dogs rather than interact with them directly. Another problem may be that dogs could suffer the negative aspects of gaming—lack of exercise, addiction and social isolation—especially if they are not used in moderation as the designers intend.

What do you think about touchscreen games for dogs?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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