Vaika's ultimate goal is extension of healthy and happy life of dogs. Therefore, besides physiological parameters and performance status we are also very much interested in emotional and cognitive condition of our dogs.
Cognitive dysfunction is a neurobehavioral syndrome which has detrimental effect on dogs awareness, memory, ability to learn and emotional well-being. Moreover, even if not manifested in dog's behavior cognitive dysfunction results in changes in the sleep–wake cycle, affecting animals' circadian rhythms and leading to more profound physiological changes. It is strongly associated with aging and develops in one fifth (20%) of elderly dogs.
Several research groups have been working on a set of tests allowing to assess dogs cognition. We have adopted some of those for our study:
The first batch of tests are generally called "Open Field Tests" and assess behavior of the animal in the room which is either empty or enriched with different objects (Rosado et al, 2012). We record dog's activity with a ceiling-mounted video camera and then analyze dogs' locomotor activity, vocalizations, willingness to explore the room and interest in new objects. These tests are repeated every 9 months and will eventually tell us if treatment or/and social enrichment affects our dogs behavior.
Another type of testing we use is a detour task (“V-test”). In this test a treat is separated from the dog by transparent V-shaped fence, and to reach the treat dog needs to move around the barrier. It allows to test inhibitory control (ability to decide against walking to the goal in a straight line), route planning and learning. We adapted V-test from Litchfield and Smith “How well do dingoes, Canis dingo, perform on the detour task".
Click on the type of test to watch representative videos, or observe individual dogs' performance on their pages.
Open Field Test is one of the best known approaches to study "spontaneous behavior". Play-room is left empty. The key measurement taken in this setting is number of squares, which dog "covers" within the certain period of time (3 minutes in our case). This number indicates dog's exploratory activity. Another important parameter to assess is amount of time which dog spends near the door, at the corners or in the center of the room. According to Rosado and colleagues, young dogs tend to vocalize, jump and spend overall longer times at the door, while senior animals, prefer to lay in the corners.
Curiosity Test: the room is now equipped with three new objects (toys) on the floor: a plastic cone, a kong toy, and a plush toy. The dog's behavior again is observed for 3 minutes. Population of Vaika's dogs were not very well familiar with dog toys in their younger years and therefore selected objects for this population indeed represent "novelty". Some of the tested dogs restricted themselves to only sniffing, while others destroyed plush toys or rolled the Kong toy all over the playroom.
Update: decreased interest in novelty seeking is a well described aging related trait for dogs. Within 18 months of testing and 3 collected data sets we've observed decline in interest to toys in most of our dogs (amount of time they spent interacting with toys decreases)
Human interaction test: dog’s behavior in a room with unfamiliar person which does not interact with the dog. Provided that vast majority of dogs participating in our study have never been treated as pets and therefore did not develop strong bonding with humans, their behavior around people differs from that of regular home raised dogs. Studies in pet dogs show that changes in pattern of interaction between the owner and the dog most prominently characterize onset of cognitive dysfunction. We will observe if pattern of interaction with novel person changes in time for individual dogs.
Update: we have completed 3 sets of testing, and 18 months passed between the first and the last one - most of the dogs keep similar pattern of interaction as it was in the beginning of the study - a subset of dogs never approach human in the test and show absolute lack of interest (just watch!), while most of animals willingly come over and sniff out human participants (watch out!). Yet, several dogs did change their pattern and significantly decreased the time they spend next to human. We will keep monitoring them for further changes.
Mirror Test: dog’s behavior is observed in the same Playroom, but instead of toys on the floor, mirror is mounted on one wall. Same as with other tests, we have observed all sorts of behaviors: dome dogs would carefully approach the mirror, look at themselves for a second and retrieve to the corner area, while some would constantly get back to mirror and check it out; few dogs were really happy with their reflection and spend a lot of time wiggling at reflection.
Update: same as with toys we observed overall decline in interest in the mirror. Some scientists believe that overexcitement from mirror reflection with age points to cognitive decline. We can't decide whether this is true for our dogs and will keep observing!
While Ian was never characterized as a shy fellow, in our test he showed typical "corner" behavior: he has spent most of the time in the corner. He has sniffed out the toys though, grabbed the Kong toy and retrieved back to the corner with it. When human was in the room Ian appeared to more relaxed which was indicated by his posture.
One of our dogs just couldn't stop running: neither toys, nor mirrors or strangers could distract him from flying around: