Good doggos put on their thinking caps in new "brain games" study

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Feb 9, 2018, 2:06 PM EST

You're never too old to learn, whether you're human - or, in some cases, canine. That's the mindset of researchers at Vienna's Messerli Research Institute, who are conducting a new study designed to get dogs' synapses firing - and maybe improve their quality of life overall.

The institute's aptly-named Clever Dog Lab is currently conducting research with the hopes of studying "the cognitive and emotional abilities of the domestic dog." To do this, they're using a simple technology that many of us humans use every single day: the touchscreen. It's being called "dog sudoku," even though it bears no real resemblance to the actual number puzzle - but the intention behind the process is similar. In essence, scientists are trying to see if they can improve a dog's cognitive function by teaching it to associate an image on the touchscreen with a treat-based reward system.

Sounds pretty easy, right? The training actually happens in a few stages, though. The dogs first had to learn how to look to the screen first, rather than the small chute below that dispensed the treats. Then, the researchers would apply dog food paste to the circles that appeared on the touchscreen, which would indicate to the dogs where to touch. After that, the dogs would learn how to press their noses to the circles sans the tasty paste - and voila, treats! You can watch a short video of one dog in the third phase of training below.

Eventually, the dogs would enter the next phase of training which involved two separate images on the screen. Pick the right one, and a treat gets dispensed through the chute. Pick the wrong one, and the screen goes dark before presenting the same images again.

Since the study is still in the beginning stages, researchers are relying on owner feedback rather than any neurological data - but the results have been promising so far. An article published on the study in the ACM Digital Library stresses the potential this type of research can have - especially in the lives of slightly older doggos: "We propose that DCI (dog computer interaction) has the potential to improve the welfare of older dogs in particular through cognitive enrichment." Playing these "brain games" could not only help with mental stimulation; it could also eventually assist veterinarians in recognizing early signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, a disease prevalent in dogs that presents similarly to Alzheimer's in humans.

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