Tuesday, 25 September 2012

brain plasticity and dogs

Lassiter Chase and Benjamin commented on my last post that they, too, would have taken time to choose a toy from a toybox if they could have any one of the toys.

This got me thinking about brain plasticity. If you haven't come across the concept, it's the idea that what we do with our brains directs the way those brains develop ( 'use it or lose it').

I'm wondering  how the brain of a household dog would compare with that of a wild dog. Penny, for instance, has a life rich in experiences, and, importantly, rich in choices.

She took a long time to select her prize from a box of previously unseen toys. She mouthed a few, quite gently, but didn't choose them. The other two dogs in the class had looked in, seized the one they wanted, and moved off with their humans to the next activity. As I said in the previous post, I eventually picked up a toy I thought Penny would like and shook it around so that she wanted it.

I think the pause for reflection showed that Penny was thinking about her options. Of course, I don't know that. Perhaps she was just enjoying the scent or feel of the toys.

I wonder how much choice a dog in a wild pack would have. How does it compare to the choices Penny can make each day?

For instance, she has three formal places to sleep - on her Snooza Pet Futon on her dog bed in the lounge room; on the couch if her special doona is spread out to keep the couch clean (but not if the doona isn't there); in her crate near the bedrooms.

Oh, I just remembered she sometimes sleeps on her green mat.

Or in the paper box.

She might sleep near the front door, and I'm beginning to suspect that's on the night when Aussie Farmers Direct deliver our milk and bread in the middle of the night (once a week).

Occasionally we challenge her to offer us a trick or a behavior. Her choice. We stand with a treat in our hands and wait to see what she'll do. She thinks for a while and then offers a variety of sits, drops, spins, or back away, or does a little bark. We randomly reward the one we like.

In a study on rats, it was established that an enriched environment, involving 'friends' and 'toys' led to greater brain growth than a standard or impoverished environment. The report says:
The objects were changed two to three times a week to provide newness and challenge; the frequent replacement of objects is an essential component of the enriched condition.
Poor rats. I always feel sad when I read these kinds of studies. The ones who lived in the impoverished environment must have suffered. One day we'll learn that we don't have the right to make our fellow creatures suffer.

Of course, there haven't been similar experiments on humans. Not ones that anyone would own up to, at any rate. However, analysis of brains of dead humans comparing life-style to brain size have come up with similar results. Interestingly, novelty and challenge are important aspects of our life experiences.
The basic finding of dendritic growth in response to environmental stimulation appears in all brains studied to date. It would appear that newness and challenge are important for the human cortex as well as for that of animals.


Hound Girl said...

I think this is a great post. Its funny when I watch these documentaries about wild dogs and so forth they dont have time to make choices they live every min concentrating on survival. I think that is why alot of household dogs end up with anxiety and so forth, they dont have big reasons to concentrate on like where is their next meal going to come from and safety and so forth. Just a view of mine. Very interesting to think about.

Lassiter Chase and Benjamin said...

Wow Penny! Never saw a paper box used as a dog bed. Butt--you do look comfy in it. Maybe we should try it one day.

parlance said...

Hound girl, that's an interesting viewpoint. I agree that boredom can be a terrible problem for our dogs. Many people don't acknowledge that we are living with one of the most intelligent species on the planet and they need things to do.

parlance said...

Lassie and Benjie, where Penny sleeps depends on the weather. The paper box seems to be pretty good in summer. maybe on a hot night you two could try it, but I don't know whether the two of you would fit into one box!

Honey the Great Dane said...

Oh, I'm a HUGE believer in this! It's why I make so much effort to give Honey a full life with lots of stimulating experiences! :-)


parlance said...

Hsin-Yi, I know you're an 'evangelist' for the provision of intellectual stimulation for dogs, lol, so your comment doesn't surprise me!