What Does Your Dog Remember? More Than You Might Think

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs likely possess episodic memory, a trait that’s tied to self-awareness
  • Dogs were able to recall past events such as human actions even if they did not expect to be tested on them, providing evidence for episodic-like memory
  • Dogs have also been found to have declarative memory, sometimes referred to as explicit memory, which is the ability to recall facts and events

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

It’s long been believed that only certain animals, including primates, rats and pigeons, possess what’s known as “episodic memory,” or the ability to recall a specific event, such as what you ate for breakfast or where you went on your first date with your spouse. But what most of us know to be true and what researchers are discovering is that dogs possess this trait, as well.

It turns out that dogs likely possess episodic memory too, a trait that’s tied to self-awareness. Unlike semantic memory, which is the knowledge of ideas and concepts, such as general world knowledge or common knowledge, episodic memory is your individual recollection of an event, such as what you did for your last birthday.

Claudia Fugazza, Ph.D., of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary told Seeker, “[T]he difference between episodic and semantic memory can be thought of as the difference between remembering and knowing."1

Dogs Have Episodic-Like Memory, Just Like Humans

Fugazza and colleagues authored a study to uncover whether dogs were capable of episodic memory.2 They used the Do as I Do training method, developed by Fugazza, to first teach a group of dogs to imitate human actions. Dogs are adept at imitating and observing humans, so it makes sense that social learning would be an effective method for dog training. The DAID method involves first teaching dogs to perform a set of behaviors displayed by a human when the command “Do it!” is said.

The command can then be used to direct dogs to perform novel behaviors learned by observation. After the dogs learned the DAID training method, they were then taught to lie down after watching human actions, such as touching an umbrella. The researchers then surprised the dogs with the “Do it!” command, which should trigger the dogs to perform the action the human had done earlier — and they did!

“These findings show that dogs recall past events as complex as human actions even if they do not expect the memory test, providing evidence for episodic-like memory … [This] is the first report of this type of memory in dogs,” the researchers wrote.3 The dogs were asked to recall actions after both short (one minute) and long (one hour) durations, and they were successful in both cases. However, their memory of their owners’ actions decreased faster the longer the test was delayed. The authors concluded:4

“We suggest that dogs might provide a new non-human animal model to study the complexity of incidental encoding of context-rich events, especially because of their evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups.”

Dogs Also Have Declarative Memory

Declarative memory, sometimes referred to as explicit memory, is the ability to recall facts and events. Episodic memory coupled with semantic memory gives us the ability to remember facts and information, which represents declarative memory.

In 2014, Fugazza and colleague Ádám Miklósi, Ph.D., demonstrated the presence of declarative memory in dogs.5 They asked the owners of eight adult dogs to train them using the DAID method, and then make them wait for five 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. It turned out 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. “[T]he ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests presence of declarative memory in dogs, the researchers noted.6

Fugazza and her team are now working on investigating whether dogs can understand the goals of others, as opposed to simply imitating their actions,7 and it’s clear there’s still much more to be uncovered about how dogs’ minds work. That being said, perhaps it’s time to give dogs’ memories more credit.

We know they can remember training commands over the long term, sometimes recognize past owners they haven’t seen for years and, sadly, show marked differences in behavior and psychology if they’ve been abused, suggested a lasting, remembered effect. Whether or not your dog remembers the walk you took together this morning or your trip to the beach last summer remains to be seen, but the emerging research suggests what we all know in our hearts, their memories may be more like ours than we think.