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The Case for Lifelong Learning

Carol M Harris UW-AAB, Michael E. Harris UW-AAB, Ph.D.

You grab your cup of coffee latte, sit in your favorite comfortable chair, and peruse a catalogue from the local Community College Adult Learning Center. “Hmm… my Thursday nights are free now…” , and you think to yourself, “So what can I find that would be interesting? Well, let’s see. ‘Wood Working for the Would Be Handyman’? Naw. I like to keep my fingers. How ‘bout ‘Dance Based Cardio for the Busy Executive’? Heck no. I’d be self-conscious. I have no rhythm. ‘Fool Proof Day Trading’? Now there we go; learning for fun and profit.” You commit to that choice and lay back in that comfortable chair, satisfied with your plans while gently stroke your dog languidly lying by your chair. Now you’re aware of the benefits of life-long learning for you yet it never occurs to you about the benefits of life-long learning for your dog…. But it should.

Emerging research is pointing to the benefits of mental stimulation and physical activities beyond just a romp in the local dog park while you stand and coffee clutch with your friends. It is desirable for the owner to closely interact with their dog since it fosters the social relationship you have with your dog and it can stave off senescence and disease. And it can start at a very young age.

Averting the Terrible Twos

We have been approached by clients who suddenly are experiencing behavior problems in their dogs. They look at us, somewhat bewilderingly, and ask why 18-month-old Fido after, puppy class, adolescent class, introductory and advanced obedience classes, is suddenly out of control. After all, considerable expense and effort had been expended to train their dog. Their pet had passed all the classes and had learned everything needed to train that ideal pet for here to hereafter and should be fine, right? Wrong. To explain why this is so, we need to look at brain development in young dogs.

Puppies develop neurologically through several phases when extensive architectural changes occur in their brains. During these changes new nervous connections are made and old ones pared down. The ability and ease to learn new things (things that can have lifelong impact on sociability particularly with members of the same species and general good behavior) are at their maximum during several epochs of maturation of your puppy called ‘sensitive periods’. This is why you were urged to attend puppy class starting at about 12 weeks. At 12 weeks to about 30 weeks, parental, fraternal and sexual imprinting, learning social coping strategies and general conditioning occur1. The general frustration of young pet owners can be reduced if this window for behavioral shaping is recognized and exploited.

Okay, we got past that and the foundation of good doggy behavior in a human society has been laid down. Yes, all’s right with the world. We can “rest on our laurels,” right? Again, wrong.

Further Graduate Education for Fido

The next 5 to possibly18 months are important for your dog’s behavior because it is entering pre-adulthood and this is the time when your dog begins to form patterns of social hierarchies, cognitive ordering of the environment and territorial relations. Think of the math classes children attend at school. Each year some of the material from the previous year’s class is reviewed before the new material is covered. Kids moan and belly ache about it, but experience has shown it to be essential. Part of the theory behind this is that repetition is an important part of pedagogy. For the same reasons, owners should continue to attend classes, particularly group classes with their pet, where the relations can be formed and fortified in a safe group setting. After all that extensive rewiring of the dog brain, it’s important to strengthen the connections where the results of past learning are stored. Several classes come to mind which would be fun for the owner as well as their pet. These would include Canine Good Citizenship (CGC) classes which are to designed to train dogs to pass the Canine Good Citizenship exam provided by the American Kennel Club. A CGC certification for your dog is an important precursor should you want to make Fido a therapy dog. Also consider that your homeowner’s liability insurance rates may be improved with a CGC certification. Moreover, there are fun programs which have a social benefits including, Dog Agility, Confidence Courses, Search and Rescue Training and the like.

Throughout adulthood to old age, engagement in challenging activities, both mental and physical provides outlets which alleviate boredom and fulfill the urge in many breeds to engage in some sort of “job”. Dogs, in general, are far less restive if they’re learning new things and being physically involved. After all, the old bromide “A tired dog is a good dog” is true. And now recent, ongoing research is demonstrating that mental and physical fitness in dogs in their peak years, just like in humans, can forestall or even avoid mental decline in their later years.

The Secret of Eternal Youth: You Must Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

In a study, both young and older beagles were tested cognitively for mobility, inquisitiveness in exploration and sociability. The results indicated that in older dogs, the level of movement was highest in age-impaired dogs with lower cognition. Dogs that were not age-impaired spent more time standing or sitting next to their owners. Young dogs were engaged in exploration of toys and persons. Age-impaired dogs in the experiments spent most of the time reacting to their mirror image and showed what the authors’ described as “undirected, stereotypical behavior patterns” which indicated lack of focus and inquisitive behavior. Intact brain function and sensory processing probably directly impacts curiosity and willingness to learn new things. A lack of this willingness correlated with age is probably indicative of neuropathology.

Intuitively, we know the same thing occurs in humans. Canine models of cognitive decline with age are being examined for the purposes of research concerning senescence and Alzheimer’s disease in humans4. This research can point to useful interventions.

Diet and inclusion of antioxidants, without question, are important. It is not known exactly which dietary components are effective antioxidants. Many compounds are labeled antioxidants because of epidemiological data and laboratory tests of antioxidant strength whether or not they actually function that in that fashion in the body. Dosages are also unknown. Probably a varied diet including many plant based components would be the best approach.

Regular exercise and visits to novel environments are very important and can make significant improvements in the behavior of the older dog.

When should this strategy have begun? Wherever you are, presently, in a moment of time.



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