Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks: this is a popular saying, often used in the human context, to mean that it is difficult to teach someone new skills or to change someone’s habits or character. But is the literal idea true? Can’t old dogs pick up new skills?

Veterinarians have often held that a dog’s capacity for learning generally does not decline during the ageing process. Irrespective of age, canines can be trained to fetch a ball or sniff out an explosive.

Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, went a step further to find out if dogs can learn new skills at an older age by conducting an experiment. They tested 265 dogs using a touchscreen game. The experiments were designed to test three cognitive abilities of dogs: learning, logical reasoning and memory. The animals were trained to push their snouts against a touchscreen in response to eight objects displayed there. They found that all dogs irrespective of age were able to press the right image to receive a food treat. However, the older dogs learnt more slowly than the younger ones. But on the other hand, the older dogs showed better reasoning skills than their younger counterparts. The researchers repeated the test six months later to test the animals’ long-term memory skills. Nearly all the dogs remembered the correct pictures showing no significant age differences in long-term memory formation. The researchers concluded in 2018 that though ageing could slow down their ability to pick up things, dogs can learn new skills at any age.

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