Dogs do have memories, and impressive ones at that. Memories are the basis of how dogs learn, are socialized and even how they understand the passage of time. Your dog can memorize and recall information about the people they have met and the places they have visited. The learning process is also closely linked to, and relies upon, memory. From earliest puppyhood, dogs remember lessons from their mom about how to look after themselves and play nicely with other dogs. And when they’re older, they store memories of training you do with them.
- What do dogs remember?
- Episodic vs spatial memory in dogs?
- Do dogs have happy memories?
- Factors influencing memory in dogs.
Although we don’t know for sure how these memories are recalled or stored, they are still vital to your dog’s health and happiness.
The Significance Of Dogs’ Memories
Luckily for us, researchers have explained many aspects and nuances of dogs’ memories, which we can share with you in this article.
Scientists share our interest in dogs memories, not just because so many of us keep them as pets in our homes. It is also thought that dogs’ memories are a good model for understanding human memory, and the onset and progression of conditions like dementia!
How Much Can Dogs Remember?
There are lots of different aspects to memory. Some terms to describe memory are well known, like short term and long term. But besides different periods of memory, there are also several different types of memory. Some of these are easily demonstrated in dogs, but others have been harder to prove.
Spatial Memory In Dogs
Spatial memory is how dogs and other animals remember the layout of places. It includes how to navigate around them, and where to find things that they’ve seen before, or left behind.
Dogs frequently have good spatial memory, and there’s a sound evolutionary reason for this. Several closely related wild species, such as wolves and foxes, have been observed storing surplus food for a future meal. Being able to remember where they left it is vital for survival.
Episodic And Incidental Memory
On the other hand, episodic memory is our ability to ‘go back in time’ and recall information about events. Episodic details are things like when or where something happened, and who else was present at the time.
Incidental details are pieces of information which don’t carry any significance at the time. It’s easy to demonstrate in humans, because we can talk about our memories. But how vivid are dogs memories of their lives before today? Can they also go back and extract those incidental details if they need them?
Until fairly recently, this ability was thought to be uniquely human. Since the turn of the 21st century, evidence has been published which both refutes and supports the possibility that dogs have episodic and incidental memories. Hopefully it’s an area researchers will keep pursuing until we have some firm answers!
Do Dogs Have Memories Of Other Dogs?
Does your Lab have a best pal at the dog park? Have you ever arranged a reunion with their littermates, and wondered if they’ll remember each other? These are dog memories we can answer for more conclusively.
In fact, we know that mom dogs remember their puppies for at least two years after they leave the nest and join their new homes. And her puppies remember her too! But interestingly, dogs only appear to recognise their siblings if they have lived continuously with one of them in the meantime. In other words, memories of their mom seem to be processed and stored in a different, more permanent way than memories of their siblings.
Do Dogs Have Memories Of Previous Owners?
Researchers have no doubt of dogs’ ability to remember people. Our unique bond with dogs, and their famous loyalty, depends upon them remembering us from one encounter to the next. In fact, observations of dogs in shelter environments suggests that dogs are very quick to remember and form attachments to new people. However, there’s evidence that dogs younger than two years old have a shorter memory span for family members.
So it might be the case that dogs adopted into a new home while they are still young are more likely to forget their previous home. Whereas an adult dog will carry memories of their former owners for longer.
Do Dogs Have Good Memory?
Dogs do have good memories, and they start to use them from a very early age. Puppies are able to remember how to open a puzzle toy which has been demonstrated by their mom or a human handler by the time they are eight weeks old. And as they grow up, successful training will depend upon them being able to remember good habits, like toilet training. But also the correct response to multiple different verbal or visual cues.
In a 2012 owner survey about pet dog memory, owners reported that the things their dogs never forgot were:
- their owner
- family and neighbours
- things associated with going out, like their leash
- and objects or activities related to food (like positive reinforcement training!).
Conversely, they believed their dogs only had short memories for pain, separation, unfamiliar dogs and strange people. But perhaps it’s not surprising that some of our dogs’ most impressive feats of memory relate to their greatest super sense – smell. A recent study found that dogs have a better memory for odors than either rats or humans do.
Do Dogs Have Short Term Memory?
Short term memory is what we’re thinking about right now. It lasts a matter of minutes, then slips from our mind because the chemical pathways triggered in our brains are transient.
Most animals have some degree of short term memory, but with the exception of humans, their short term memory is usually poor. Dogs’ short term memory is thought to last around two minutes. But this is still plenty of time to form lasting associations, and commit some of those memories to long term memory.
Do Dogs Have Long Term Memory?
‘Long term’, when used to describe memory, might not be as long as you expect. Long term memories are those that dogs retain and can fall back on after the period of short term memory has ended. They are formed and stored differently at a cellular level in our dogs brains. Dogs might hold onto long term memories for a few minutes, or a lifetime. And they include all the types of memory we discussed earlier.
Dogs rely upon long term memory to remember desirable behaviors, places they’ve been, and people and dogs they met before. Something we do know is that sleep improves long term memory and performance in dogs learning new training cues from their handlers.
Memory Loss In Older Dogs
Sadly, memory loss is part of aging for many dogs. Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) is a progressive neurological disease in older dogs, analogous to dementia in humans. Dogs with CDS can forget things they have known for a long time beforehand. Like who frequent visitors to their home are, and learned behavior like going outside to use the toilet.
That memory loss is caused by oxidative stress in the brain tissues gradually building up over a long period of time. Oxidative stress is when unstable atoms or molecules mop up oxygen from the surrounding tissues to form more stable atoms and molecules. Since the brain tissues also need oxygen to function properly, they begin to deteriorate, and the dog’s memory declines.
Protecting Memory In Older Dogs
Luckily, there are protective steps we can take to preserve our dogs’ memories for as long as possible. Diet is proven to play a significant role in protecting dogs’ cognitive function (including memory) as they get older. One study found that dogs fed an uncontrolled diet of kitchen waste or low-quality commercial food were nearly three times more likely to develop CDS. That’s when compared with those dogs fed a high-quality, complete food appropriate to their size and age and specific dietary requirements.
Whether you feed your dog commercial kibble, wet food, home cooked or raw, discuss their diet with their vet every year at their annual check up. To make sure they’re getting the best possible balance of nutrients for their stage of life.
Other Factors Affecting Memory In Dogs
Besides old age, their are some other notable factors which can influence dogs’ memory. Recent research at the University of Bristol in the U.K. suggests that dogs’ short term memory is affected by diseases which cause chronic pain, such as arthritis. This is likely to be because these conditions prevent dogs sleeping comfortably and for as long as they need to at night. Sleep is a vital time for dogs’ brains to sort and store memories.
There is also recent evidence that dogs with epilepsy perform less well in spatial memory tasks. But more research is needed to understand why that is, how it progresses, and whether it can be prevented.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website