We’ve all heard touching stories of dogs reuniting with their owners after years apart. And even when your pooch buries a bone in the backyard and digs it up weeks later, it seems to prove that dogs have good memories. But how long is a dog’s memory really? And do they truly remember all the things we imagine they do or is it just wishful thinking on our part?
Human memories and dog memories work differently, and unlike other common dog behaviors, there is still a lot of research to be done on this topic. But for now, let’s take a look at what we do know about our pups and their memories.
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How Long is a Dog’s Memory? Types of Memory
First, what do we mean when we refer to a dog’s memory? The term “memory” is not as simple as it may seem. There are various types of memory that dogs use at different times, and some memory types are stronger than others.
Short-term memory refers to what we are thinking about at the moment. This type of memory is transient—it lasts for a little while and then disappears, except if we commit the information to long-term memory. Most animals, including dogs, have some sort of short-term memory, but it is usually a lot shorter than that of humans.
Dogs seem to have a short-term memory of about two minutes. This is long enough for them to remember that you told them to “stay”. But it is also short enough to explain why they are so excited to see you, even when you only left the house for a quick errand.
Even though their short-term memory doesn’t last long, it provides enough time for dogs to form an associative or long-term memory. We’ll look at these memory types next.
While short-term memories disappear after a certain time, long-term memories are stored differently in the brain and can last for years. It is generally believed that animals’ and humans’ long-term memories don’t work the same way.
Human long-term memory is also called episodic memory. We can ‘look back’ at a specific event in our past and relive the actions and emotions of that memory. Most scientists agree that dogs do not have episodic memories, although research is still being done in this area.
This means that your dog probably isn’t thinking back to that hot summer’s day when you went for a drive and shared your deliciously cold ice cream cone with him. However, he does remember enough to associate a pleasant emotion with ice cream the next time he sees it. This is where associative memory comes in.
This type of memory is when the brain creates an association or relationship between two things. Dogs have very strong associative memories. For example, when you put on your sneakers instead of your work shoes, your pup will get excited because she associates sneakers with going for a walk. Negative associations also work this way.
For instance, your pet might start to shake whenever they have to get in the car because they associate it with a trip to the vet. These types of associative memories may look like long-term memories to us. After all, it might have been months since you’ve gone to the vet, but your pup seems to remember it mighty well.
However, our dogs don’t remember the entire event the way we do—only enough to have formed a positive or negative association.
How Do Dogs Form Memories?
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Now that we understand the types of memories there are, you may be wondering how dogs create these memories in the first place.
Experts believe that memories related to a dog’s survival are the ones that they remember best. Events that are extremely positive or negative will also have a bigger impact on your pet, and he’ll remember them for longer.
For example, if your curious pup sniffed around too close to the campfire and burnt his paw, he’ll likely avoid fires for years to come. This is an important survival instinct in animals, as they learn which parts of their environment are dangerous and should be avoided.
Sadly, this also means that negative memories often last longer than positive ones. Dogs who were abused by their previous owners will often show fear and anxiety around objects they associate with their past. This may still happen even though they’ve been living in a loving home with you for years.
Other important factors in how dogs form memories are related to scent. Dogs have a very strong sense of smell and will often create memories based on certain smells. This is why dogs work so well with police enforcement as drug sniffers—they can form a memory of a specific smell and sniff it out time and again.
The Role of Your Dog’s Memory in Training
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Understanding how your pup’s memory works can help you in the training process. Since associative memory is strong in dogs, it is important to create clear associations between your commands and their actions.
Strong emotions create better memories, so try to make training exciting for your dog. This will help your pet to learn commands faster and remember them for longer.
Negative associations last long and can be hard for your dog to forget. If they have a negative connotation to getting in the car, for example, you can try training them to create new positive memories.
Unlike associative memory, your pup has a rather short span of short-term memory. It’s no use getting home from work and yelling at your puppy for the mess they made on the floor a few hours ago. Your pet simply won’t understand why you are mad at them.
On the other hand, if your puppy makes a mess right in front of you, you can react immediately. Give them a firm “No!” and take them to the appropriate spot outside. The event will still be in their short-term memory, and they will form an associative memory of what to do in the future.
Do Dogs Remember Their Owners?
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Our pets mean the world to us, so it is normal to wonder if they feel the same way about us. While it hasn’t been completely scientifically proven, the evidence does seem to suggest that our pets can recognize and remember us.
As mentioned earlier, dogs have a very strong sense of smell and can store memories related to scents. If your dog has many positive experiences with you, this will create a strong associative memory with your scent. If you were somehow separated from your furry friend for a long time, they’d still come running with joy once they smell you again.
In the case of adopted dogs, many owners wonder if their pup remembers their previous family. If the memories they created together were impactful enough, there is a good chance that your dog would recognize its previous owners.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that your dog is pining for its old family. Our pups mostly live in the moment, and as long as you provide them with tons of love, they won’t feel like they’re missing something.
Memory Loss in Older Dogs
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By now, we know that dogs’ memories can last a long, long time. The only thing that can disrupt their memories, sadly, is aging. As dogs become older, they can develop a type of doggy dementia known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.
Senior dogs who suffer from dementia slowly start forgetting the people they love, as well as the basic routines and commands they learned. Your senior dog may forget where his food bowl is located or scratch on the wrong door to go outside.
It can be heartbreaking to see our smart, beloved pet gradually lose their memories. Sadly, there is not much we can do once dementia has started setting in. Taking preventative measures is the best we can do when it comes to protecting our dogs’ memory.
Studies have shown that a healthy diet plays a big role in preserving a canine’s cognitive function and memories. Give your dog special senior dog food, and talk to your vet to make sure your pet is still getting all the nutrients they need.
Final Thoughts on Your Dog’s Memory
Dogs may not remember events in the same way we do, but they still have a very good memory. They use smells and intense emotional experiences to create their memories of the world and of us.
Current research seems to show that dogs can’t look back on past events and reminisce the way we do. Nevertheless, your pet can form positive associations with your actions and your home, and in this way, they will remember you for a lifetime.
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