Training Tuesday: When Will Your Pup Be Most Attentive to Learning?

By Claudia Bensimoun

First published in The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)



Image credit: Pixaby

In order to learn successfully, dogs, like humans, need to have some level of concentration and attention. Similarly, dogs, like humans, have varying amounts of attentiveness throughout the span of their lives, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Dr. Lisa Wallis at the Messerli Research Institute, Vetmeduni, Vienna, and her colleagues used a cross-sectional study design to examine attention changes (when attention peaks and declines) in the course of a dog’s life, and concluded that dogs’ attentional and sensorimotor control developmental trajectories are very similar to those found in humans. The research involved 145 border collies, aged 6 months to 14 years, at the Clever Dog Lab, Vetmeduni Institute, Vienna. Only those dogs that willingly cooperated were involved in the study.

Dogs Found Humans More Interesting Than Objects

Wallis wanted to determine how rapidly dogs of various age groups pay attention to objects or humans. In the first test, the dogs were confronted with a child’s toy that was suddenly suspended from the ceiling. Wallis and her colleagues then measured how quickly each dog reacted to this occurrence, and also how rapidly the dogs became accustomed to it. At the beginning of testing, all the dogs reacted with similar speed to the stimulus (the child’s toy). But the older dogs lost interest in the toy more quickly than the younger dogs did.



Image credit: Pixaby


In the second test, a person who was familiar to the dog being tested entered the room and pretended to paint the wall. Surprisingly, all the dogs reacted together. The dogs watched the person and the paint roller in the painter’s hands for a much longer time than they watched the toy that was hanging from the ceiling. “So-called ‘social attentiveness’ was more pronounced in all dogs than ‘non-social’ attentiveness. The dogs generally tended to react by watching the person with the object for longer than an object on its own. We found that older dogs, like older human beings, demonstrated certain calmness. They were less affected by new items in the environment and thus showed less interest than younger dogs,” says Wallis via Science Daily.

Selective Attention Is Highest in Mid-Adulthood

In another test, Wallis and colleagues explored so-called selective attention. The dogs first had to participate in an alternating attention task. In this test, the dogs had to perform two tasks in succession. In the first test, the dogs had to find a food reward that had been thrown on the floor by the experimenter. After the dogs ate the food, the experimenter would then wait for the dog to establish eye contact with her. These tasks were repeated for 20 trials. Each time there was eye contact, a clicking sound made by a clicker would sound and the dog was then rewarded with hot dog bits. The researchers then timed how long it took for the dog to find the food and look up in the experimenter’s face. By comparing both time spans, middle-aged dogs that were between three and six years old reacted more rapidly. Within these testing conditions, sensorimotor abilities were found to be the highest among dogs that were middle-aged.

Younger dogs did not do as well, most likely due to their general lack of experience. Researchers also found that motor abilities in dogs, as in humans, deteriorate with advanced age. “Humans that were between the ages of 20 and 39 years old experience a similar peak in sensorimotor abilities,” says Wallis.

Adolescent Dogs Have the Steepest Learning Curve

Wallis explained that dogs also go through a difficult phase during adolescence, normally between one to two years of age. This affects their ability to pay attention. The researchers compared this phase to puberty in humans. Not surprisingly, young dogs sometimes reacted with some delay with the clicker test. Nonetheless, Wallis concluded that young adolescent dogs improved their performance more rapidly than any other age groups after having made several repetitions of the clicker test. That is to say that the learning curve in adolescent dogs was found to be the steepest in puberty. “Thus, dogs in puberty have great potential for learning and therefore trainability,” explains Wallis.

For more on this article, please visit the USDAA.

Woofs & Wags!


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