Carly sometimes insists on going outside; she wanders around out there for a bit, gazes up at the stars, then appears to forget what she originally went out there for.

The 13-year-old labrador’s family has suspected for a while now that Carly might have dementia, or cognitive decline in dogs (CDD) as it’s known. 

Christine Hayes, from Lewiston in regional South Australia, says Carly displays many of the symptoms of CCD, such as forgetfulness. 

But a new study that looks into CDD has found that, just like humans, stimulation of dogs’ brains through training and activity as they age can help keep such cognitive decline at bay.

Ms Taylor made two different training pathways, one scent based and one with physical challenges for the participants.(Supplied: Tracey Taylor)

The five-week research program studies the best ways to keep dogs intellectually stimulated as they get older and become more at risk of CCD. 

Carly is among the study’s canine participants that completed an earlier run of the program near Adelaide, which meant regular trips to the city for the lab’s family. 

“It is something you need to take time out of your schedule to do, but we need to remember they [dogs] are part of our lives, but we are their whole life,” Ms Hayes says.

“We were just reminding them their bodies can work in these different ways, getting them to work out they could walk backwards if they found themselves in a corner, weaving through poles to remind them of what they can do.

“We do the sudoku or the crossword to keep our brains busy and active; it really isn’t any different with dogs.” 

In just a matter of weeks, Ms Hayes had noticed a difference in the elderly lab, finding her to be generally more alert and interested in things.

Same but different

Basil may be a fraction of the size of Carly the lab, but lately he’s been having many of the same issues.

Vet nurse Mel Reichelt says 13-year-old shih tzu cross, Basil, has become forgetful as he got older.(ABC Riverland: Timu King)

The 13-year-old shih tzu cross gets stuck around his house sometimes, forgets where he is going, and is much less limber than he used to be as a pup. 

So when his guardian, vet nurse Mel Reichelt, came across a questionnaire to screen elderly dogs for a CCD study, she wanted to learn more. 

“I’d love to improve and see where I can help Basil,” Ms Reichelt says. 

“We also have his little brother [Bosco] who is going to need a bit of help down the track, so I’d like to start putting things in place now.

“But also in my work at the veterinary clinic, it is good to be able to talk to the customers about their old dogs.” 

Ms Reichelt says the trial will also improve the care she can give his younger brother, Bosco, in years to come.(ABC Riverland: Timu King)

The need to keep on training 

University of Adelaide PhD candidate Tracey Taylor says canine cognitive dysfunction is well known but beyond some medication that vets can prescribe, little is known about how to manage it. 

The lack of information for pet owners to make a difference in their loved one’s life makes it all the more difficult.

“We’re looking at training options and seeing whether that could have some impact,” she says. 

“Just how older adults challenge their brain with crossword or sudoku.” 

Ms Taylor has established two different training programs to see which one returned better results. 

“We’ve created two different types of treatment — one is around scent work and the other is balance, problem-solving, physical movement,” she says. 

“We’re just getting them to think about their legs, build a bit of muscle and thinking about how to track down a particular odour — that’s challenging the brain, and that’s keeping those neurons really healthy.

“We work in classes, one hour a week for five weeks with their guardians, and then we monitor them to see what happens.”

Ms Atkinson got involved to bring participants to the study in South Australia’s Riverland. (ABC Riverland: Timu King)

Gill Atkinson works as a dog trainer and as a veterinary nurse at the Riverland Veterinary Practice.

“We see a lot of old dogs, mainly for physical problems like arthritis,” she says.  

“But when we start to talk to them we see some of the triggers to let us know the brain is a little tired.”

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