How Much Do Dogs Remember?

Dogs recall a lot more than you think!

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If you have a dog, chances are you have wondered if your beloved doggy can remember you or anything else for that matter. 

What do dogs remember? Or can they remember anything at all?  Read on...

Does your pet remember things you do together?

shutterstock_570187588-red.jpgFor humans, the ability to consciously recall personal experiences and events, is thought to be linked to self-awareness. It shapes how we think about the past—and how we predict the future. 

Our memories contribute to how we understand ourselves and our experiences in the world. But because dogs aren’t verbal, it’s very hard for humans to understand whether they have a similar sense of self. 

The 2016 study conducted at the Family Dog Project yielded great insights. It was conducted at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

The study suggests that dogs share a type of episodic memory. And that the ability to recollect is more common in animals than previously thought. 

Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition scientist at Barnard College in New York City, commented on the study. She wasn't involved in it, but said it was a “creative approach to trying to capture what’s on a dog’s mind." 

The concept that nonhuman animals can consciously remember things they’ve done or seen in the past, is controversial.  Most experts believe that Episodic memory doesn’t exist in animals because they aren’t self-aware. 

But scientists have shown that some species do have "episodic-like" memories. Animals like Western scrub jays, hummingbirds, rats and great apes have been observed to remember complex sequences. This has enhanced their ability to survive. For instance, the Western Scrub Jays; remember what food they’ve stashed; where and when. They can also recall who (if anyone) was watching at the time.

This leads us to ask a couple of questions. 

- What occurs in an animal’s brain when it comes to events that are not strictly necessary for their survival?

- What do they think when an event doesn't involve someone else’s actions? 

The ‘Do as I Do’ Trick

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To find out if dogs can remember such details, scientists asked 17 owners to teach their pets a trick called “do as I do.” 

1. The dogs learned that after watching their owners jump in the air, they should do the same thing when commanded to “Do it!” 

They trained the dogs to imitate human actions on command. But that alone did not prove episodic-like memory, so the testing continued. 

2. In the next round of training, the owners taught their dogs to lie down after watching them do something different. Things like touching an umbrella or stepping up on a chair were used as signals. They were no longer required to imitate the same act performed by their owners, instead they were expected to lie down.

3. The owners then performed the different action, but this time after the dog laid down, the owner ordered, “Do it!” 

That's when the dog had to remember what action it had seen its owner do previously. That action was combined with the command it was being ordered to perform.

 And this was done even though it had no expectation that it needed to recall the action. 

The dogs were tested in this way both one minute and one hour after watching their owners.

a. Essentially, the dogs were first trained to imitate human actions on command. 

b. Next, they were trained to perform a simple training exercise (lying down), irrespective of the previously demonstrated action. 

So, they substituted the dogs’ expectation to imitate their owners with the expectation to lie down.

The Results

 

Amazingly, the dogs succeeded in 33 of 35 trials. This suggests that dogs have something similar to episodic memory. Although, the longer the dogs had to wait the more trouble they had recalling the action, like human episodic memory. 

The human memory fades at a faster rate when an event isn’t intentionally recorded. For example, you’re more likely to remember your first kiss than a hug last week from your spouse. 

To break it down, the dogs were able to remember the “do as I do” trick, even when the owner performed a different trick, but their memory faded with time. 

According to researchers, this demonstrates that dogs can remember events they witness (in this case, an action performed by their owner). 

But they don’t retain those memories for very long. So, dogs may have short-term, episodic memory, but their associative memories stick with them longer. (More on this later.)

“The study showed that dogs remember events much like we do, and [it] blows out of the water the old way most scientists characterized animal memory,” said Brian Hare, a dog cognition expert at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. 

“Our dogs’ memories aren’t based simply on repetition and reward.” 

The study revealed that episodic memory is not unique to humans. And it did not evolve only in primates. 

Though humans and animals do not share the same level of episodic memory or self-awareness, it shows that dogs and other animals recall a lot more than we probably think.

“It’s a more widespread skill in the animal kingdom,” said Claudia Fugazza, an ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and the study’s lead author who also said that parrots, dolphins and killer whales could be the next ones to be further tested. 

Researchers have already taught these species the “do as I do” trick.

Note: A cat's memory is thought to be at least 200 times better than a dog's. 

Associative Memory vs. Episodic Memory

CPI3.png Unlike episodic memory, there is associative memory which we know for sure that dogs have. 

After all, a dog who’s been through obedience training can remember commands and hand signals for the rest of its life. Dogs have proven to have good memories when it comes to people, places and things. 

For example, they know which fences they like to bark at and who gives them treats. It’s associative memory that helps dogs remember their favorite things.

When you think about going for a walk, you probably remember specific walks you’ve taken in the past.  And you may recall a specific route you took or the time it rained on you while you were out for a stroll. 

A dog’s mind, according to studies, does not exactly work the same way.

Instead, dogs have associative memory. They remember people, places and experiences based on feelings and associations they have with them.

For example, many dogs remember walks because of their association with their owners’ walking shoes. If you’re a dog owner, you know this well. Some dogs go bonkers when their owners grab their leashes because they associate that leash with a walk, and a walk is one of their favorite things. 

So, this is how dogs remember things based on their associations with them. 

Good Doggy Memories/Training

CPI4.pngWith training you can change your dog’s associative memories and behaviors. For example, when someone new comes to your home, have them give your dog positive attention and treats so your dog will associate that person with things he/she likes. 

Your dog may not “remember” that person the same way you remember them, but he/she will form positive associations with that person.

Bad Doggy Memories/Training

Do dogs remember bad experiences? They sure do!

shutterstock_523441108-red.jpg Although dogs don’t have the same kind of memory as we do, they can form negative associations that we may interpret as “bad memories.” Just like the good, they recall the bad.

You might notice how dogs who were abused as puppies or come from abusive homes will act scared and fearful around humans: that’s because it was most likely a human who abused the dog. That dog associates abuse with humans.

Does your dog act fearful in the waiting room at the vet’s office? If he’s had a negative experience at the vet, while he may not remember exactly what scared him so much, he associates the vet’s waiting room with that fear.

You can help dogs overcome negative associations by replacing them with positive experiences. For example, take a few “fun” field trips to the vet’s office where no exam takes place. Unfortunately, the stronger the association, the harder it is to change the memory.

Does My Dog Remember Me?

You probably remember the first day your dog came home to live with you. But does your dog remember the first time meeting you? The short answer is, probably not. 

While that 2016 study shows dogs may have some type of episodic-like memory, it also reveals there are real limits to that type of memory in dogs. So, your dog probably does not reflect on your first moments together in the same way you do.

The heartwarming news is, your dog’s associative memory means he knows who you are and that he likes you! Dogs are also strongly affected by smell, so your dog’s sense of smell helps him recognize and “remember” you and your scent is recognizable to your dog.

 So, why does my dog sit and wait for me in the window?

 

shutterstock_566124988_red.jpgYour dog might not remember everything you do together nor the day you first brought her home. 

But she might remember watching you leave the house this morning and her strong positive associations with you mean she’ll celebrate when you get home tonight. And don’t forget, that 2016 study did reveal dogs have short-term episodic-like memory.

Your dog’s positive associations with you, your home, her favorite doggy friends and her favorite treats mean that she’s constantly “remembering” your life together and celebrating the good stuff in it. 

Even if dogs don’t have fond memories of the past, their recognition of the present is a good reminder to live in the moment and enjoy every experience you have together.