Dogs may remember more than we thought, at least according to a Hungarian study.

Comparative psychologist Claudia Fugazza used an umbrella and a crowd of canines to determine if dogs could “see it, do it, remember it.” Her research found that dogs may remember our actions up an hour later, having significant implications on how we train and understand them.

Mind-reading man’s best friend

For at least the last century, we’ve credited dogs with remembering only the past few minutes. Sure, they remembered training commands, directions home and other constantly repeated actions, but dogs probably didn’t remember where you put the TV remote this morning. A variety of studies reinforced this notion, including recent research using MRI and CT scans.

Complicating matters, canines have uniquely evolved to respond to the subtlest human verbal and non-verbal cues and may even be able to sense changes in our odor, hormones and electricity. Their astounding ability to tap into human moods and intentions can confuse investigations into why a dog is doing something versus what they think we want them to do. Sounds confusing, but the bottom line is it’s hard to read a dog’s mind. That’s where the umbrellas come in.

The imitation game

Fugazza used a technique she calls “Do As I Do.” It reminded me of the training method often referred to in America as “Follow Me,” where a dog is trained to follow a gesture and focus or interact with an object until the next command is given. The researchers took the concept a step further into “Simon Says” territory. They wanted to determine if you could ask a dog to imitate or remember an unfamiliar action demonstrated earlier when given the “Do It” command.

One of the tests involved a dog watching a trainer walk over to an open umbrella, tap it with their hand and walk away. Dogs trained in the “Do As I Do” method should be able to reproduce the action. Could they? If they could, how much time could pass between seeing the umbrella tap and repeating it? Enquiring Hungarians wanted to know. Me, too!

Measuring memory in dogs

The study evaluated 17 “Do As I Do” trained dogs. The pooch participants consistently and successfully repeated the umbrella tap both at one minute and one hour intervals. Pretty impressive. What I found most intriguing is that the dogs could repeat the actions even though they were not expecting to recall it an hour later. I totally expected success at one minute; one hour later recollection opens entirely new possibilities and neurological mechanisms.

Fugazza believes this study indicates dogs have episodic memory. Some simple examples of episodic memory include the memory of your first roommate, last year’s vacation and where you were on 9/11. This recollection of events is uniquely your own and may vary from your roommate’s.

Dogs remember more than we think

This is a potentially important finding in dogs because episodic memory is associated with self-awareness. Currently we don’t have a way to measure if dogs (or cats) are self-aware. Fugazza thinks they are, and I think she may be right. Most pet owners can cite several examples of apparent episodic memory in dogs, yet scientific evidence doesn’t exist. I’ve always struggled with understanding how a dog could have an upsetting event at a groomer or veterinarian, and seemingly transfer that fear to the next groomer or vet. Episodic memory may play a part.

Perhaps more importantly, this study provides insight into the wonderful complex capabilities of man’s best friend. If they can remember for an hour (or more), that offers a wider window for training, behavioral modification and calming efforts. Of course, it also means our impact on their emotional wellbeing is even more significant. Sadly, I don’t think it means they can help me find my remote.

Sep 12, 2017

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