What's more marvelous than a dog's brain that is always in a learning state? We often think of the puppy's sensitive period as a window of time that permanently "shuts close" once the time frame has elapsed, but sometimes we forget that dogs are always learning. Saying that the window of opportunity for puppy socialization closes shut within a certain time frame ignores the beauty of the neuroplasticity of a dog's brain. Rather than closing shut, a more accurate description may be that the opportunity to absorb and retain may be only significantly diminished, as there is always space for new neural connections to be formed, things just become more challenging past a certain time frame, experts say.
Like Learning a New Language
Nicholas Dodman in the book "Puppy's First Steps" compares it to the uncanny ability children are blessed with in learning new languages.
When a child is young, he's very adept in grasping the accent, intonation and use of idiomatic expressions of a new language, which explains the easiness of children to becoming multilingual, but over time, the brain loses its flexibility so the ability to learn a new language tends to fall dramatically with advancing years.
Sure, you can make up for the lost ground once the pup is a 6 month-old teenager, but it will require much more effort, just as with learning a new language at a later age.
Plasticity of the brain is something that occurs over a lifetime, the brain never stops changing and adjusting, but the level of plasticity tends to change during certain periods of one's life.
It's best to reap the benefits of this time and socialize puppies properly rather than enduring in "remedial socialization".
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Position Statement on Puppy Socialization emphasizes the importance of providing ample of positive socialization opportunities during the puppy's first three months of life.
Old Dogs Learn New Tricks!
What does neuroplasticity mean though exactly? The term "neuro" refers to nerves of the nervous system and the term plastic comes from the from Greek word "plastikos," from "plassein" which means ‘to mold.' And both our brains and the brains of our dogs are always in the the process of being "molded" in some sort of way!
This occurs when we we learn something new or retain some new information that causes new neural connections which make our brains capable of neuroplasticity.
It was once thought that our brains had a lowered ability to create new neural pathways beyond the juvenile period, a time frame during which it's particularly suited to neuroplastic adaptation, but new studies have shown that even the brain of the elderly is capable of being plastic.
"Neuroplasticity never ends, you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks, it just might take a little longer," claims Shelli R. Kesler a senior research scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine."
"We used to think that the brain was completely formed by development and its basic structure didn’t change much in adults, but as research went on we discovered that wasn’t true. We now know that an underlying portion of the brain called the thalamus, which feeds the cortex information from our senses, is remarkably plastic.
Using new research techniques on rats, our lab found that the neuronal connections bridging the thalamus to the cortex are massively plastic—they grow and retract rather rapidly in only a few days in response to different sensations we expose the rat to," further explains Randy Bruno, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and member of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University.
Off the Beaten Path
To better understand the concept of neuroplasticity, Team Neuroplasticity compares the formation of new neural pathways to taking a walk in the woods.
It's as if we tend to walk the same paths during our daily activities each day. Then, one day, we're attracted by something and decide to stray and go off the beaten path.
We discover new intriguing trails, and as we start walking them every day, these fresh paths start to get worn and easily noticeable so we start navigating them with ease.
With enough repetition, we can even travel them as if we are on autopilot. This is similar to what happens when we learn something new courtesy of the neuroplasticity of our brains. Same goes on with dogs. Teaching a new trick or a new skill and providing environmental enrichment is beneficial to our canine companions.
"Enrichment is an essential component of care for all pets, including small mammals, reptiles, dogs, cats, and horses, and can have a positive effect on their welfare and well-being" claims veterinary behaviorist Lisa Radosta with Florida Veterinary Behavior Service Jupiter, Florida.
Did you know? It was English neurophysiologist Charles Scott Sherrington the first to coin the term "synapse" the gap between two nerve cells, in 1897.
- Angeline S. Lillard, Old dogs learning new tricks: Neuroplasticity beyond the juvenile period,Developmental Review, Volume 31, Issue 4, December 2011, Pages 207–239
- Nicholas Dodman "Puppy's First Steps: Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Dog " Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University Wilmington, Massachusetts, Houghton Mifflin, July 24, 2008
- Sanjay Gupta, Chasing Life: New Discoveries in the Search for Immortality to Help You Age Less Today, Thorndike Press, 2007