What Do Dogs Remember? Since We Can't Ask Them, Our Canine Experts Have Some Theories
You may think your dog has an extraordinary memory. After all, she knows what time dinner is served, when to get a leash for a walk, and seems to recognize relatives who visit every year. So exactly what do dogs remember, and how?
"It's proven that dogs have memories, but we aren't sure quite to the extent just yet. More studies are underway and it's very exciting," says Hunter Finn, DVM, owner of Pet Method in McKinney, Texas.
Research is uncovering many facets of a dog's memory, including how some canines find their way home from long distances or how a dog remembers a previous owner after being lost for years. What's more, dogs remember dozens of words we teach them. "Walk", "ride", "park" or even family member's names are like second nature to your dog. Here's what to know about your pup's memory.
How Do Dogs' Memories Develop?
There are many types of memory, but according to Leslie Sinn, DVM, CPTD-KA, DACVB, one that humans and dogs seem to share is associative, which is a form of declarative/relational memory.
"It's generally thought that dogs have associative memory—meaning, they form links or associations between two things. The official definition is: The ability to learn and remember the relationship between unrelated items. For example, leash equals walk," she says. Sinn is a board certified animal behaviorist, owner of Behavior Solutions in Ashburn, Va. and a member of the Daily Paws board of advisors.
So when you use positive reinforcement training to teach your dog a cue like "sit" or "stay", they receive a reward and use associative memory to connect their action to your response.
Another memory ability is episodic, which is when you have the self-awareness to consciously remember something that happened to you. Because it's primarily a human characteristic, Sinn says animal experts aren't completely sure to what extent dogs might have episodic memory. However, some researchers believe canines—along with chimpanzees, elephants, mice, and squirrels—have potential. The problem? We can't simply ask them to know for sure.
How Long Is a Dog's Memory?
Sinn says Hungarian scientist Claudia Fugazza studied this theory, and the conclusion was canines have the ability to recall things over time, "although their performance begins to decline" during longer testing periods. This study also hints to the possibility of dogs having some type of episodic memory.
"We do know that a dog who lived in unhappy or negative circumstances will have anxiety and stress associated with certain cues, such as an item, location, or scent," Finn adds. So, this likely supports the idea that dogs may remember some aspect of a negative experience, even if it's just the feeling associated with being abandoned or left outside, for instance.
Do Dogs Remember People?
Sinn says the current assumption is dogs can have a powerful, positive association with a person that's likely triggered by scent and/or recognizing something else about the owner—voice, facial features, and so on. This allows them to tap into that connection, even if they haven't been together for a while.
"What we aren't sure about is what memories are like that are formed without language. Is an odor or smell associated with memory a more powerful one? We just aren't sure, but it's an ongoing area of active investigation," she says.
She references what she considers a fascinating study involving cats in which offspring recognize their mother by body odor long after they've separated. It's possible this might play a role in how dogs also remember their parents and siblings.
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Helping Your Dog Improve Their Memory
Unfortunately, as they age, dogs are prone to developing a form of dementia known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), which presents many symptoms similar to the human condition, including:
- Altered activity
- Changes in sleep-wake cycles
- Changes in social interactions
- Increased anxiety
- Increased house soiling
Not all senior dogs will have CCD, but to help your best furry friend stay active and healthy, maintain a regular exercise routine appropriate for their breed type and keep their minds agile. Sinn says positive reinforcement training plays a huge role in associative memory and learning.
"It's the foundation of what we do! 'Sit' equals treats, 'come' equals pets and hugs," she adds. "In addition, we can use that ability to change associations we no longer want. For example, instead of strangers equating to scary, you can change the association by making it strangers means deli meat!"
Additional reporting by Jennifer Nelson.