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How good is your dog’s memory?

A dog with reading glasses leaning on a book

Have you ever wondered just how well your dog remembers things? You go on a vacation, leaving your furry friend in someone else’s care, and when you return, they greet you with excitement and recognition. But for how long can they remember you? Can they recall experiences from months or even years ago? And what about those instances when your dog hides a toy and then immediately retrieves it when you ask for it? Or has your dog ever mistaken a squeaky clean window door for an open one? Most likely they are now trotting around carefully to ensure the door is really open.  It begs the question: how good is your dog’s memory?

Not many experiments have been done on dogs’ memory so far. However, researchers have determined, your furry friend’s memory is not exactly the same as yours. While they might not excel at remembering names or dates as we do, they possess an incredible ability to remember locations. If you’re always misplacing your keys, your dog could probably find them more efficiently than you can.

The debate among researchers focuses on whether dogs only have short-term memory or also the ability to remember for longer periods of time. Many experts do suspect that dogs are able to retain memories of impactful experiences. For example, if your dog has ever burned themselves on a candle or a fireplace, they will likely avoid any flames in the future. This type of memory is called associative memory. They will link the pain of the burn with flames, without remembering exactly what had happened before.

Similarly do they blink positive experiences, such as going out for walks and grabbing the leash with each other. This explains why your dog gets excited when you pick up their leash. This is also how positive reinforcement training works. You’re linking the approved behaviour with a happy memory.

Animal behavioural researchers, like Dr Claudia Fugazza, have been trying to understand how well a dog’s episodic memory works. In other words, whether dogs consciously remember specific moments that happened to them. Since our four-legged friends cannot just explain to us what they can and cannot remember, scientists have been looking into other ways to find out more.  In a fascinating study, Dr Fugazza trained 17 dogs to copy certain actions, such as putting their paws on a chair. Once they mastered this imitation skill, the dogs were trained to lie down after observing their owner’s action, regardless of what that action was.

Surprisingly, even when the dogs had no prior training or expectation to imitate the new action, they were able to repeat it successfully. It took them a bit more time, however, it showed the dogs were able to remember these imitations for up to an hour later. In other words, our furry friends would be able to create longer-lasting memories as well.

Recognition is another aspect of memory that dogs excel in. The first one that probably comes to our minds is smell. And indeed, since our dog’s sense of smell is many times better than ours, they use this to smell your scent in the air. This is also how rescue and support dogs work. Read more about this in the post: How can therapy dogs help people.

However, there is another way your furry friend recognises you. And it’s a picture-perfect one. Research from 2015 led by Daniel Dilks shows dogs can recognise faces. They react strongly to images of people and of dogs. More so than to images of objects. Another study shows dogs are actually focussing on human eyes in images. Concluding dogs are actually trying to read a person’s emotions. So when you see your dog gazing dreamily into your eyes, know they are probably trying to find out how you’re feeling. Besides admiring your beauty of course.

While dogs may not remember every little detail as we do, their memory capabilities are impressive in their own right. They excel at remembering locations, forming associative memories, and even recalling specific actions after observing them. So, next time you wonder how well your dog remembers, know that their memory goes beyond the here and now. They hold onto experiences and emotions, forming a deep and lasting connection with you. Embrace the opportunity to create beautiful memories together! So, take a moment to reflect on your favourite memory with your furry friend. Whether it’s a joyful romp in the park or a cosy cuddle session, cherish these beautiful moments that make your relationship with your dog truly special.

Now it’s your turn! Share your favourite memory with your furry friend in the comments below. Let’s celebrate the incredible memories we’ve created with our canine companions!

Thanks for reading!

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