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dogs remember more than we think




Dogs may remember more than we thought, at least according to a recent 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

 

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.

 

are dogs self-aware?

 

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.  

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Comments
Posted by Rebecca Wilco
on February 23 2017 19:45

My dog is a super friendly Rottie at 3 1/2, I truly believe she remembers everyone she has ever met. Not to mention she knows the difference between a frisbee, a ball and a football.

Posted by Pat rowantree
on February 23 2017 14:36

I enjoyed this blog today. I do think dogs have episodic memories, some behavioural aspects certainly suggest it. Our dog hides treats in different places throughout the house and will leave them for days. Eventually he eats them...maybe it's instinctual but seems more likely to be that combined with memory he's saving them. He also knows where his canine bff lives, each location where we have met up with them on walks and how to recognize they're close when they are not yet visible. Any suggestions to get our dog to stop barking at the tv, when seeing or hearing a dog, horses, gunshots, physical fights?

Posted by Loree Wellborn
on February 23 2017 10:03

I am convinced that animals have memories beyond a few minutes. Our Yorkie has amazed us with what she remembers. Three years ago she had diarrhea & I showed her our shower & told her that was the place to go in an emergency. She used the shower several times that day when she had loose stools. I should remark that she never goes potty in the house. Two years later in the middle of the night she jumped off of our bed & ran to the shower as she had diarrhea once again. Tell me how she remembered that the shower was the place to go in an emergency but used it at no other time. She also remembers where she saw a lizard in the yard for days sometimes for a week or more. Also, she remembers that a toy was she left on our bed from the night before & will lead us to the bed to retrieve it the next day. She also remembers for days where we hid a toy that she wants but she can't have as it's a toy for our granddaughter. She continues to amaze us with what she remembers. I have no doubt that animals have memories beyond what they've been credited to have.

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