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Older Dogs Slower to Learn But Faster to Reason

A new cognition study looked at how age relates to learning, reasoning and memory in pet dogs.

Older dogs have stronger reasoning skills than younger pups, but the young'ins are faster learners and more flexible in their thinking. That was the conclusion behind new research out of the Messerli Research Institute at Vetmeduni Vienna, which put pet dogs through a series of cognitive tests using touchscreens and imagery.

Researchers Lisa Wallis and Friederike Range examined the cognitive abilities of 95 border collies, ranging in age from five months to 13 years, in the areas of learning, logical reasoning and memory.

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For learning tests, the dogs were shown side-by-side images on the touchscreen that were "good" (they get a treat) or "bad" (no treat and a time-out), shuffled in different combinations so that the animals had to learn which one scored them a snack.

The older dogs, it turned out, were slower learners than the younger collies, and the grizzled pets were also a bit stubborn in their thinking.

"Older dogs required more trials than younger ones before they were able to solve the task correctly," said Wallis in a release.

The older dogs also paralleled the human stereotype of a certain rigidity that comes to some with age.

"The test also showed that older dogs are less flexible in their way of thinking than younger ones," Wallis added. "As in people, older dogs find it more difficult to change old habits or what they have learned."

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The older dogs fared a bit better vs. the young ones when it came to logical reasoning, however.

New pictures were shown alongside "bad" pictures re-used from the previous learning tests, and it was up to the dogs to "infer by exclusion" which picture was to be avoided.

In this task, the older dogs showed that logical reasoning improves with age.

"The older the dog, the better it performed, while younger dogs were unable to master this task," said Range.

But that praise for the older generation came with a caveat: "This is probably due to the fact that older dogs more stubbornly insist on what they have learned before and are less flexible than younger animals," Range observed.

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Finally, though, the playing field was leveled when it came to memory. The older collies did just as well as the young ones: The researchers found no age difference in the ability to remember six months later the pictures the dogs had seen during the touchscreen tests. Almost all of the collies, old or young, remembered the "good" pictures.

The scientists say their tests can serve as a baseline to help diagnose and treat cognition problems in pet dogs.

Their research has been published in the journal Age.

Border collies went touching for treats in a cognition study.

DNA analysis, as well as historical information, is helping to reveal the world's most ancient dog breeds. A new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, puts the spotlight on East Asia as being a primary origination point for dog domestication. The earliest known dog-like fossils come from Europe, but it is likely that these dogs did not produce large populations that led to distinctive breeds. Genetic research on existing dogs reveal that certain breeds stand apart from others. "Our results show that these breeds represent lineages older than modern European breeds, and in this sense can be considered as ancient," senior author Wiesław Bogdanowicz of the Polish Academy of Science's Museum and Institute of Zoology, told Discovery News. Afghan hounds fall into the ancient group. In fact, they were called "ancient" long before the advent of genomics. In 1925, an article published in "The Dog Fancier" had the declarative title: "The Afghan Hound Is an Ancient Breed." Canine experts at the time even thought that the dogs "entered the ark with Noah" and were the world's first ever dogs. According to the historical record, Afghan hounds date back to the pre-Christian era of northeastern Afghanistan. The original name for the breed, famous for its silken coat and fashion model thin build, was "Tazi."

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Basenjis look remarkably like dogs featured in ancient Egyptian art. Drawings found in the tombs of the 2700 B.C. Great Pyramid of Khufu show such dogs seated near the feet of their owners, or under chairs. The cat-loving Egyptians might have taken to the dogs because, like felines, these canines tend to be relatively quiet and wash themselves regularly with their tongues. Most researchers, including Bogdanowicz and his team, still believe that domesticated dogs largely arose in Asia and migrated to other regions. "It is very likely that migrating populations of early farmers were followed by dogs," he said, explaining that these dogs were not feral, but were originally free-breeding. Basenjis possess a very distinctive suite of characteristics, which must have been maintained by human breeders. While the official breed only dates back 60 years, these dogs clearly have been in existence for centuries.

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Nearly all DNA studies of dogs find that Arctic breeds, such as the Alaskan malamute, stand apart from modern breeds. An extensive genomic investigation conducted by senior author Robert Wayne from the University of California at Los Angeles and colleagues found that Alaskan malamutes, as well as American Eskimo dogs and Siberian huskies, "are highly divergent from other dog breeds." This means that they have evolved on a slightly different path than other, more modern dogs. Wayne and his team added that "historical information suggests that most have ancient origins, greater than 500 years ago."

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"Saluki" is thought to derive from two early Sumerian words meaning "plunge-earth." What that means exactly, in reference to the dogs, remains a mystery, but it is known that Salukis were historically bred in the Fertile Crescent where agriculture is widely believed to have originated. Like Afghan hounds, Salukis tend to have long legs and a thin build. They are known as sight hounds, meaning that they hunt primarily by sight as opposed to by smell or other senses. Today, they are bred with coats in a veritable rainbow of colors ranging from red to tricolor (white, black and tan).

The Greenland sled dog, also sometimes referred to as a sledge dog, is yet another early East Asian breed. The recent DNA analysis conducted by Bogdanowicz and his colleagues "revealed post-divergence gene flow from grey wolves to Greenland sledge dogs," they wrote. This determination reminds that free-breeding dogs can still interbreed with wild canines, such as grey wolves, coyotes and golden jackals. The resulting offspring can be fertile, and conservationists are concerned that we may one day lose the uniqueness of wild canine species due to hybridization.

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Wayne and his team found that only two East Asian breeds, the chow chow and Akita, "had higher (genomic) sharing with Chinese wolves" than other breeds. Researchers can therefore see past wolf contributions to the modern dog genome. Other wolf populations noted in the dog DNA studies include those from North America, the Middle East and Europe.

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The Samoyed, as a distinctive breed, originated in Siberia, where nomadic reindeer herders bred them as sled dogs and to help with herding. Their historical past is much deeper, however, as these primitive dogs descend from an even earlier, founding population of Russian dogs. According to an American Kennel Club fact sheet, "Of all modern breeds, the Samoyed is most nearly akin to the primitive dog. No admixture of wolf or fox runs in the Samoyed strain."

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The genetic analysis of Wayne and his team defined three basic groups of "highly divergent, ancient breeds." They are: *Asian group: dingo, New Guinea singing dog, chow chow, Akita and Chinese Shar Pei *Middle Eastern group: Afghan hound and Saluki *Northern group: Alaskan malamute and Siberian husky All of these dogs were found to be genetically "distinct from modern domestic dogs."

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Bogdanowicz and colleagues' study suggests that the Shiba Inu belongs on the ancient dog list. The DNA of this dog shows that it is related to yet another East Asian breed, the Chinese Shar Pei. The American Kennel Club, though, reports that "Shibas are considered the oldest and smallest of Japan's dogs." The AKC only officially recognized this breed in 1992, demonstrating that the actual origin of a breed can happen hundreds of years prior to such designations.

The word "spitz" refers to several different breeds that loosely share common ancestry and traits. They are believed to descend from very ancient dog populations. Bogdanowicz told Discovery News that he and his team "found that spitz-type breeds of European origin -- Keeshond, Elkhound, Finnish Spitz, German spitz and Schipperke -- are genetically distinct from other European dog breeds, suggesting that they may have a distinct origin and possibly may be related to spitz-type breeds from East Asia and the Arctic." A closer look at the friendly dog shown in this photo reveals many wolf-like characteristics, such as a dense and waterproof insulating coat. Dog breeders even categorize spitzes in a unique group that stands apart from the other umbrella terms that they often use to describe dogs: ancient, toy, spaniels, scent hounds, working dogs, mastiff-like breeds, small terriers, retrievers, herding and sight hounds. The spitzes are in a league of their own.

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