By Sarah Wooten, DVM
When it comes to cognition and mental clarity, the phrase “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” fits. Science has shown that lifelong learning is associated with slowing down the deterioration of mental ability, and it turns out that holds true for our canine companions as well.
Researchers at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna recently found that senior dogs responded positively to brain training using a doggie version of Sodoku on a touchscreen. Based on this research, it appears that not only can you teach an old dogs new tricks, but you can also help them sharpen their mental activity by training them to play brain games on a tablet.
Elderly dogs can benefit from training just as much as younger dogs, but by and large, they don’t receive the same kind of interaction from their owners. Reasons vary, but pet parents mistakenly think their old dog doesn’t enjoy training, or the dog has mobility challenges, such as osteoarthritis, that make it difficult to engage in physical activity.
The brain is like a muscle—mental exercises make it stronger. When new learning takes place in an old brain, new neuron connections grow together, and the more the action is repeated with mental exercise, the stronger that neural connections becomes.
Training an older dog to engage in mental exercises on a touchscreen is a fabulous way to get your senior citizen build his brain muscle through learning and problem solving. Touchscreen activities are particularly good for dogs who have a hard time getting around, but they might not be a good idea if your dog has a seizure disorder or other neural disorders. If that describes your dog, check with your veterinarian before you pull out your iPad.
There are a plethora of apps that you can download and use to train your dog to play. You’ll also want to begin teaching your dog the “touch” command, which he will use to touch a tablet screen with his nose.
Teaching your dog how to play games on tablets may be time intensive, but I challenge you to think about it as quality time with your old dog that he never, ever takes for granted.
Dogs should be closely monitored at all times when using a touchscreen, and pet parents should take caution to hold a tablet firmly or have it firmly affixed, lest an over-exuberant gamer (think 2-year-old male Labrador) send it flying with their nose. Just like kids, all screen time should be monitored. If your dog enjoys the activity, I recommend a maximum of one hour of gaming per day divided into two 30-minute sessions.