Lesley Evans Ogden Knowable Magazine
In a citizen science project, thousands of pet dogs are helping scientists to understand what happens to memory and cognition in old age
Hana aced her memory test. After viewing the contents of three identical boxes arrayed in an arc on the back deck of her home, the 3-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel had to remember which box held a treat — a task she quickly learned after just a few trials.
Hana and her human companion, Masami Shimizu-Albergine of Bainbridge Island, Washington, are helping scientists to learn something too: when dog smarts reach their peak and how they decline with age.
Hana is part of a pack that has grown to nearly 40,000 pet dogs enrolled in a citizen science initiative known as the Dog Aging Project, founded in 2014. Understanding the biology of aging in companion dogs is one of two main goals of the project, says cofounder and codirector Matt Kaeberlein, a pathologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who focuses on aging. “The other is to do something about it.”
Through veterinary records, DNA samples, health questionnaires and cognitive tests like Hana’s treat-finding challenge, the initiative of the University of Washington and Texas A&M University will track many aspects of dogs’ lives over time. Smaller subsets of the dogs, including Hana, will participate in more focused studies and more extensive evaluations. From all of this, scientists hope to spot patterns and find links between lifestyles and health from puppyhood through the golden years.