Living with dogs, you may think they have pretty good memories – after all, dogs who’ve been through obedience training remember commands and hand signals. Furthermore, dogs seem to have a good memory for “place”, meaning they always know which fence is the most fun to bark at and which shop will give them a treat.
But do memories in dogs work the same way as they do in humans? No, not really.
Associative Memory and Dogs
When you think about going for walks, you remember specific walks you have taken. You might reflect in your mind’s eye on paths or recall the one time it rained when you were out for a stroll. Dogs don’t think that way. In fact, they don’t have direct recall. Instead, they have associative memory. Dogs remember places, people, and experiences based on the association they have with them. Associative memory helps a dog remember their favorite things.
For example, a dog might remember walks because of their association with a pair of walking shoes. Every time they see the shoes, they might get excited, knowing they are about to take a walk.
In fact, a big part of training your dog is to change their associative memories over time.
Think about how you might introduce a dog to new people. If you invite someone over and they give your dog treats and positive attention, the dog will associate that person with treats and positive attention. They might not remember the guests the same way you remember them, but they form an association.
Dog’s Negative Associations/Bad Memory
Although a dog doesn’t have the same kind of memory we do, they can form a negative association that we can interpret as a bad memory.
For example, a dog may act fearful in a waiting room at the vet’s office. If they have had a negative experience there, they may not remember exactly what scared them so much, but they may associate the waiting room with fear.
You can help a dog overcome negative associations by replacing them with positive ones. As an example, take a few fun field trips to a vet’s office where no exam will take place. Unfortunately, the stronger the association, the harder it will be to change the negative memory.
Memories of First Encounters
You can probably remember the first day your dog came home to live with you, and you might wonder if your dog remembers the same thing. They probably don’t. But that doesn’t mean they do not remember you as a person.
Dogs have a type of episodic memory, or inability to remember specific events in the past. However, a recent study shows there are limits to that type of memory for dogs. So, a dog can’t reflect on your first moment together in the same way you do.
However, their associative memories mean that they know who you are, and they remember they like you. They are also affected by smell. A dog’s sense of smell assists them in recognizing and remembering you.
Can Dogs Remember Any Specific Past Event?
Just because a dog lacks episodic memory doesn’t mean they cannot remember anything that happened to them. It’s just that vocabulary around animal memory is different than that around a human’s memory.
Episodic memory has to do with a sense of self. Our memories contribute to the way we understand ourselves and our experiences in the world. Because dogs aren’t verbal, it’s hard for humans to understand whether they have a similar sense of understanding themselves.
Recent studies show that dogs might have episodic-like memories. Researchers found that a dog can remember events they witness, however, they don’t retain the memory for very long.
So, a dog may have short-term, episodic memory, but their associative memory sticks with them longer.
Your Dog Knows YOU
Your dog may not remember everything you do together. They probably don’t have good memories of puppyhood. But they may remember watching you leave the house this morning, and the strong positive association they have with you means they’ll be happy when you get home tonight!
Your dog’s associations that are positive with you, your house, and their favorite dog friends mean that they’re constantly remembering the life you have together and celebrating the good things in it. Even if a dog doesn’t have fond memories of their past, dear acknowledgement of the present is a good reminder to be in the moment and enjoy each experience you have together.