Aging effects on discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory in pet dogs


In laboratory dogs, aging leads to decline in various cognitive domains such as learning, memory and behavioural flexibility. However, much less is known about aging in pet dogs, i.e. dogs that are exposed to different home environments by their caregivers. We used tasks on a touchscreen apparatus to detect differences in various cognitive functions across pet Border Collies aged from 5 months to 13 years. Ninety-five dogs were divided into five age groups and tested in four tasks: (1) underwater photo versus drawing discrimination, (2) clip art picture discrimination, (3) inferential reasoning by exclusion and (4) a memory test with a retention interval of 6 months. The tasks were designed to test three cognitive abilities: visual discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory. The total number of sessions to reach criterion and the number of correction trials needed in the two discrimination tasks were compared across age groups. The results showed that both measures increased linearly with age, with dogs aged over 13 years displaying slower learning and reduced flexibility in comparison to younger dogs. Inferential reasoning ability increased with age, but less than 10 % of dogs showed patterns of choice consistent with inference by exclusion. No age effect was found in the long-term memory test. In conclusion, the discrimination learning tests used are suitable to detect cognitive aging in pet dogs, which can serve as a basis for comparison to help diagnose cognition-related problems and as a tool to assist with the development of treatments to delay cognitive decline.