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Dogs Remember Events from the Past, Study Says

Dog Memory

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study shows that dogs can imitate human actions by simple observation. That’s right… our canine companions actually learn, recall and can replay actions they’ve watched humans perform.
  • Researchers at a university in Budapest wanted to learn whether dogs possess declarative memory, which is the ability to remember facts and information.
  • In their study, the researchers had the dogs watch their owners perform certain tasks, and in some instances, they were also invited to perform the task. After a short break spent away from the objects used in the tasks, the dogs were brought back and demonstrated the ability to perform not only the tasks they had already practiced, but also the ones they had only watched their owner perform.
  • The researchers concluded their study results suggest the presence of declarative memory in dogs, which refers to memories that can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge.

By Dr. Becker

If you own a dog or have ever spent any time around one, you know that canine companions rely heavily on communication cues from their humans. Dogs learn by watching humans and are easily influenced by us when we are training them to do something.

However, experts in canine psychology have long believed dogs – unlike humans -- have little or no memory for events that happened in the past.

It appears they were wrong! 

A new study conducted in Budapest, Hungary and published in the July issue of Animal Cognition1 suggests that dogs can mimic novel human actions simply by seeing them, but not actually practicing them. Dogs can learn, remember and replay actions taught by humans after a short delay.

8 Dogs Were Trained to 'Do As I Do'

It is generally thought that animals have no sense of time and therefore have no episodic memory. Episodic memory coupled with semantic memory (the capacity to understand meanings and concepts) gives us the ability to remember facts and information, which represents declarative memory.

Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary wanted to determine if canines were capable of these same types of memories. They asked the owners of 8 adult dogs to train them to “do as I do” (for example, ring a bell or walk around a bucket), and then make them wait for 5 to 30 seconds before they were permitted to try to copy the action they had just observed their owner perform.

For the study, the dogs watched their owners perform the tasks for 1.5 minutes. For some tasks the dogs were allowed to copy the task in two actions; for other tasks, they could only sit and watch. Then the dogs were walked behind a screen so they could no longer see the objects used in the tasks. The dogs remained behind the screen anywhere from 40 seconds to 10 minutes, during which time people played with them or they were allowed to do whatever they wanted.

The purpose of the break behind the screen was to determine if the dogs would remember how to perform the tasks without ever doing them.

Study Results Suggest Dogs Have the Ability to Consciously Recall Memories

When the dogs were brought back, whether it was the owner or a stranger who commanded the dog to “do it,” they typically performed the task. In fact, the dogs could complete the two-action tasks after being behind the screen for up to 10 minutes. They were also able to perform the tasks they had only watched after spending a minute behind the screen.

The researchers concluded that:

"The ability to encode and recall an action after a delay implies that the dogs have a mental representation of the human demonstration. In addition, the ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests the presence of a specific type of long-term memory in dogs.

"This would be so-called declarative memory, which refers to memories which can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge.”

I’m not sure we needed a study to prove our canine family members have good memories, are you? 

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