Attentiveness in dogs

Photo by Angela Gaigg

Photo by Angela Gaigg

Researchers at the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni in Vienna have researched dogs’ attentiveness and how it changes over their lives – and the patterns shown are similar to humans!  The results have been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Dogs are individual personalities, possess awareness, and are particularly known for their trainability. To learn successfully, they must display a sufficient quantity of attention and concentration.

The study’s lead author, Lisa Wallis, and her colleagues investigated 145 Border Collies aged 6 months to 14 years in the Clever Dog Lab at the Vetmeduni Vienna and determined, for the first time, how attentiveness changes in the entire course of a dog’s life using a cross-sectional study design.

To determine how rapidly dogs of various age groups pay attention to objects or humans, the scientists performed two tests. In the first situation the dogs were confronted with a child’s toy suspended suddenly from the ceiling. The scientists measured how rapidly each dog reacted to this occurrence and how quickly the dogs became accustomed to it. Initially all dogs reacted with similar speed to the stimulus, but older dogs lost interest in the toy more rapidly than younger ones did.

In the second test situation, a person known to the dog entered the room and pretended to paint the wall. All dogs reacted by watching the person and the paint roller in the person’s hands for a longer duration than the toy hanging from the ceiling.

The dogs generally tended to react by watching the person with the object for longer than an object on its own. The team found that older dogs – like older human beings – demonstrated a certain calmness. They were less affected by new items in the environment and thus showed less interest than younger dogs.

In a further test the scientists investigated so-called selective attention. The dogs participated in an alternating attention task, where they had to perform two tasks consecutively. First, they needed  to find a food reward thrown onto the floor by the experimenter, then after eating the food, the experimenter waited for the dog to establish eye contact with her.  These tasks were repeated for a further twenty trials. The establishment of eye contact was marked by a clicking sound produced by a  “clicker” and small pieces of hot dog were used as a reward. The time spans to find the food and look up into the face were measured. With respect to both time spans, middle-aged dogs (3 to 6 years) reacted most rapidly.

“Under these test conditions, sensorimotor abilities were highest among dogs of middle age. Younger dogs fared more poorly probably because of their general lack of experience. Motor abilities in dogs as in humans deteriorate with age. Humans between the age of 20 and 39 years experience a similar peak in sensorimotor abilities,” says Wallis.   

Dogs also go through a difficult phase during adolescence (1-2 years) which affects their ability to pay attention. This phase of hormonal change may be compared to puberty in Man. Therefore, young dogs occasionally reacted with some delay to the clicker test. However, Wallis found that adolescent dogs improved their performance more rapidly than other age groups after several repetitions of the clicker test. In other words, the learning curve was found to be steepest in puberty. “Thus, dogs in puberty have great potential for learning and therefore trainability” says Wallis.

Source: Vetmeduni media release

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