We recently moved house, and already our dog knows when we walk down the road which driveway is ours. So I conducted a little experiment to see if she would remember our old house, (bearing in mind that she spent most of her life living there!). Turning onto our road I had high hopes, but alas, she simply walked straight by.
So how much do dogs remember? Your dog has a complex brain that can make memories but in a completely different way to humans. Dogs have an associative memory that prompts them to remember people, places and things, based on visual and voice recognition and smells.
Do dogs have memories?
Although there have been various studies that disprove and support the fact that dogs do remember more than they let on, the trouble most scientists have, is that a dog is non-verbal, so trying to figure out what they remember is tricky to understand.
It is important to note that there has also not been any research into whether different breeds recall things differently. We know that some dogs are more intelligent than others (such as Border Collies and Poodles), so do some dogs have the ability to remember specific events?
Also is it possible that certain breeds of dog have long term memory whilst other have short term memory?
Whilst I find the possibilities fascinating (and there’s obviously still research to be done on a dog’s memory), let’s take a look at what’s known today about a dog’s memory.
How does a dogs memory works?
When we remember things, we travel back in time by picturing them in our minds. A favourite holiday memory, people we loved and occasions that hold meaning. This is because we have an episodic memory that allows us to relieve these moments. This can even include incidental details such as what we were wearing at the time.
Dogs, unfortunately, do not have the same memory span as we do. In fact in a study conducted by Johan Lind, an ethologist at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University, Sweden, it was found that dogs have short term memories of just 71 seconds!
This is why it is pointless telling your dog off for something they have already done, as they live in the present and it is highly unlikely that will remember things from the past.
And just incase your were wondering which animal does have the best long term memory; even though we use the saying “an Elephant never forgets”; the study concluded that it is actually Dolphins that have the best long term memory (aside from us humans)!
Your dog’s associative and episodic memory
Dogs do, however, exhibit a variety of different types of memory cognition.
Instead of thinking back to specific events and times, dogs use association and smell as a prompt or reminder to something.
Associative memory is the brain’s way of creating a link between two things. For example, going on a walk. Dogs won’t remember a particular park, but they will connect having their lead put on with a positive action because of the association between the two.
Vocabulary also plays a large part when it comes to a dog’s memory, and this feeds into your dogs obedience training. Dogs can remember commands such as “sit” and “down” and therefore they can be trained to remember certain things such as “where’s the door?”. “Where’s your lead?” Etc.
It’s not so much that remember, but that they understand the command that their owner gives and have been taught to go and do something specific when they hear that prompt.
Whilst we know that a dog does not have an episodic memory exactly like us humans, research undertaken by Current Biology, did show that dog’s do have an ability to imitate human actions on command and remember them over a short period of time. A previous advancement on the ‘Do as I do’ method, provided strong evidence that dogs do in fact have an episodic-like memory.
Dogs do have the capacity to remember scents, however, and the emotions and feelings associated with that specific smell. This is why it often appears that dogs are remembering certain people, when in fact they are simply recalling a scent.
Did you know – a dogs sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than a human’s! It’s no wonder that certain breeds such as Springer Spaniels and German Shepherds play important roles for our emergency services.
How do dogs remember their owners?
The moment our Cavapoo sees us, she comes bounding over, wagging her tail and expressing her delight to have us back in her life. Even after a vacation away or a few nights apart, she doesn’t forget who we are. But how does she remember if she does not have a long term memory?
Although it may seem like your dog has a great short term memory, in fact what our dog Rosie is displaying is another form of associative memory.
This time, the associations link us (as her owner) to her sense of smell, sight recognition and the sound of our voice.
A dog is able to retain these details in their associative memory – which means just like ‘dolphins’, your dog is unlikely to forget its owners. And that, in a nutshell, is how a dog’s memory span works.
Do dogs remember their siblings?
Just like they do from us humans, what our Cavapoo has learnt in the past from her mum as a pup, is ingrained within her behavior.
From learning to play nicely to how to groom themselves, these are all life lessons that they have learned from birth. But do dogs remember playing with their siblings?
While some researchers believe a dog can not recognize their littermates, there is some evidence to suggest that providing they remained with their siblings up until the critical socialization stage of 16 weeks, then they might identify them, should they meet later in life.
Puppies that were sent to their forever homes from 8 weeks are less likely to remember their previous life, but may associate past family members by smell.
Do dogs remember places?
We have all read heartwarming stories of dogs that have gotten lost miles from home, only to turn up at their owners door a few weeks later. But as mentioned above, our Cavapoo is no homing pigeon, so can dogs actually remember places?
Dogs have spatial memory which allows them to remember the layout of places. This allows them to navigate around their home, knowing exactly where the back door is, their crate or special chair i situated and where to go when they need a drink.
Wild dogs also have to rely on their spatial memory when they need to head back to their den or need to locate food that they have been storing elsewhere.
Therefore if dogs are given regular training sessions, then they have the ability to expand the horizons of their thinking . Training also provides a great opportunity for your dog to recall places and even certain times of the day.
Do dogs have a sense of time?
Your dog will have a sense of time, probably associated through positive events such as mealtimes, but they do not actually have a ‘concept’ of time.
Human episodic memory means that we can recall memories in our past and look forward to the future. Dogs, however, react to a range of behavioural cues instead, such as the specific sound of our car engine, which will alert them to the fact we are home.
Do dogs remember bad experiences?
Although dogs don’t have the same kind of memory as we humans do, they can form negative associations with events that have powerful emotional impacts. We then interpret these as “bad memories.”
For example, Rosie does not like going to the groomers. She is fine once she is there, but she has negatively imprinted the parlour with a place where she will be left without us (and yes our Cavapoo does have certain separation anxiety issues that we are trying to address!).
As a way of combating this, we are attempting to change her experience so that she associates the drop off as being fun and joyous with plenty of praise and treats, so that this association gets stronger and the negative memory short term will be erased. This is easier said than done.
A dog has a complex type of memory span, and researchers are still trying to understand a dogs brain and the links between short term memory, episodic-like memory and long term retrieval.
So whilst it is unlikely that your dog will be able to impress their doggy friends in the park with stories of places they have been, they can retain smells, visual cues and words in order to recall actions and responses.