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Your Dog's Memory May Be More Human-Like Than You Think

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers have recently discovered that dogs have episodic-like memory, which is linked to self-awareness, once thought to be an exclusively human trait
  • In a study of 17 dogs trained in the Do-as-I-Do social learning method, the dogs demonstrated the ability to remember the actions of their owners even when they weren’t expecting to have to remember
  • Previous studies in other species suggest rats, pigeons and primates may also have the capacity for episodic memory

By Dr. Becker

It seems the more we study the canine brain, the more like us dogs seem to be. "Dogs are among the few species that people consider 'clever,' and yet we are still surprised whenever a study reveals that dogs and their owners may share some mental abilities despite our distant evolutionary relationship,” observes Claudia Fugazza, Ph.D., of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary.

Study Reveals Dogs, Like People, Have ‘Episodic Memory’

Lead researcher Fugazza and two colleagues have recently discovered that like humans, dogs have episodic memory rather than semantic memory, and have published their findings in the journal Current Biology.1 According to Newsweek:

“Episodic memory is defined by the study’s authors as memory of personal events and specific episodes in one’s life. This means dogs can recall past experiences that might not have been particularly eventful or meaningful at the time, allowing them to associate emotions to places and prior times of their lives.

This type of memory is linked to self-awareness — the ability to distinguish oneself as a separate and individual entity — something the researchers claim has never been studied in dogs before. In contrast, semantic memory is formed from facts and rules that are learnt by an animal in order to survive.”2

The Budapest researchers found that dogs can remember complex actions performed by humans even when there’s no incentive to recall them.

Do-as-I-Do Training Method Used to Test Dogs’ Memory

One of the challenges in determining if other species have episodic memory is that we can’t simply ask them what they remember. For her study, Fugazza and her team used a training method called Do-as-I-Do (DAID).

Dogs trained using this technique watch a person perform an action and then perform it themselves on command. For example, a person jumps up in the air and then gives his dog a “Do it!” command, and the dog jumps up in the air as well. Fugazza is actually the creator of Do-as-I-Do, which uses social learning instead of individual learning (operant conditioning), such as clicker training, to train dogs to perform desired behaviors.

A few years ago she conducted a study to compare DAID to clicker training, and concluded that dogs in the DAID group were more likely to learn a new behavior within 30 minutes, and to learn it faster than dogs in the clicker group.3 In addition, the dogs taught using DAID were more likely to remember what they’d learned after 24 hours.

For the current study, the researchers first trained 17 dogs using the Do-as-I-Do method. Then in phase two, the dogs were trained to simply lie down after watching their owners perform an action, no matter what the action was. Once the dogs were lying down dependably, the researcher had the owners change things up and tell them to “Do it!” after an action was performed.

Guess what happened? The dogs did it. They recalled the action their owner had performed even though they didn’t think they’d need to remember it. In doing so, they displayed episodic-like memory. According to the American Veterinarian:

“Episodic memory relies on incidental encoding, storing memories of events without actively trying to remember them (by comparison, intentional encoding is purposeful learning). The investigators devised a way to study incidental encoding in dogs by unexpectedly testing their memories of their owner’s actions.

If the dogs had expected the tests, they would have been more likely to use intentional encoding to remember what their owners had done.”

The dogs were tested in the same way after one minute and again after one hour, and were able to recall their owners’ actions in both cases.

Study Results Suggest Episodic-Like Memory Is Not Exclusive to Humans

The researchers believe their approach can be adapted and used with a wide range of other animal species.

"From a broad evolutionary perspective, this implies that episodic-like memory is not unique and did not evolve only in primates but is a more widespread skill in the animal kingdom," Fugazza says. "We suggest that dogs may provide a good model to study the complexity of episodic-like memory in a natural setting, especially because this species has the evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups."4

Previous studies in other species suggest rats, pigeons and primates may also have the capacity for episodic memory.