How much do our dogs remember?

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Ever wonder if your dog has any memories? I’m sure most of us would like to believe that our dog remembers the fun times we’ve had together whether it was going on a walk, playing fetch, etc. However, studies show they don’t have much of a memory at all.

There have been multiple studies done by research groups where “captive animals performed a short-term memory test. In the first part of the test, an animal is briefly exposed to some visual stimulus — a red dot, for example. After a brief delay, the animal is shown the same stimulus a second time, along with one or more additional stimuli — a black square, for instance. If the animal is able to identify the original stimulus, it is rewarded with a treat.” (Cooper) Not many animals were successful at accomplishing the tasks in the tests, demonstrating that they don’t have very good short-term memories.

All animals have short term memories, but the time span of the memory varies from animal to animal. Dogs specifically will forget an experience in about two minutes. This is why dogs get so excited when you walk through the door, because even if you were just with them 10 minutes ago, they don’t remember.

A recent investigation done by National Geographic found “short-term memory suggests animals don’t remember specific events much at all—instead, they store away useful information about what could help them survive.” (Owen)  Dogs, as well as all other animals, have a specialized memory that allows them to remember important things like the sound of their offspring, where to find food, and other information needed for survival. This shows that when the information is important enough to be retained, animals have the ability to do it.

Although no animals have episodic long term memory. Many animals have associative long term memories. Associative memories allow them to remember and associate certain things with danger and other feelings, but these associations do not stem from specific experiences. This type of memory is why stray cats keep returning to someone’s house once the individual offers it food, because they associate food with the house. Dogs also have declarative long term memory which allows them to remember certain facts and commands. According to a study “Dogs can learn, retain and later repeat actions humans teach them. The study trained dogs to watch activities performed by their human demonstrators. They were trained to wait briefly before showing the action previously demonstrated to them. Then, they were tested for memory of that action. They remembered the action after 10 minutes, even with distractions in between.” (Whitman)  There are even some cases of extremely intelligent dogs who can remember a lot of commands and information.

Based on the current research and generally speaking, dogs memories aren’t great. However,  scientists don’t think it is right to completely rule out the possibility that dogs can remember past experiences, it just needs to be researched further.

3 thoughts on “How much do our dogs remember?

  1. Lauren Ann Heess Post author

    Daniel, you make a good point about dogs having the ability to remember specific people even though that is not related to their survival. That aspect of a dog’s memory did not cross my mind when I was doing this blog, but since you mentioned it, I decided to look up the answer since I was curious as well. Here is the link. You were correct with your assumption that the scent of a person plays a role in how the dog remembers them.

  2. Amanda Strassler

    Love the topic and the 60 minutes clip is really interesting as well. I think the fascinating thing about dog memory is the time span in which they remember specific actions. With practice they can remember certain actions with positive or negative consequences. It really shows how animals adapt and rely on survival instincts.

  3. Daniel F Shurtleff

    I found the blog very interesting, especially because dogs are clearly one of the best pets around. I think when people think of pets as their “friends,” they may be somewhat true but not entirely. As you mentioned in your post, dogs will retain memory of what will lead to their survival. This definitely could explain how dogs are trained; rewarded with food. So they will remember what action led to their treat and replicate it in the future. However, I don’t think this could explain every action dogs make that seem like they have a memory. What intrigues me is how they seem to remember a specific person, even if not related to their survival. For example, I see my brother’s dog only a few time every year. Yet she seems to specifically remember me each time and get overly excited. So I also wonder if smell and the scent of a person or activity is easier for a dog to retain as longer term memory?

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