What we know about dogs memory
Can your dog remember its last visit to the vet, does it think back on its younger days– or can it remember anything at all?
Does your dog remember his last visit to the veterinarian? Does he think back at his young days as an inexperienced puppy? Do they remember at all?
These questions fascinate dog enthusiasts all over the world. However, there is limited scientific literature to answer the questions about the dog's memory. Although, there are a few aspects about their memory that scientists have already established, and their discoveries might just surprise you.
Let's get this out of the way straight of the bat: dogs' memory does not work the same way as our memory. Humans tend to get lost in our heads, whether we daydream or reminisce about past relationships and mistakes made. Dogs, on the other hand, tend to live in the moment.
For the dog, the important things in life are happening right here, right now. Everything else is secondary. But does this impulsive lifestyle mean that dogs can't remember?
Not necessarily– a lot of factors imply that dogs can remember.
Memory through associations
Dogs have something called 'associative memory', which means that most of their behaviour is decided by their previous association with things.
For example, you have probably seen YouTube videos with titles similar to 'my dog knows he is going to the vet, and he doesn't like it.' Where the dog in the video is clearly uncomfortable when they pull up to the vet.
For us humans, it would be natural to think that the dog remembers the last time he went to the vet, and therefore it is stressing out now.
But this assumption is wrong. The dog can't even remember a glimpse of the last time he went to the vet. However, its 'associative memory' strikes. The dog has heard the word veterinarian before and therefore associates it with something bad based on previous experience.
The dog doesn't remember the vet vividly. Still, it recognises that a veterinarian is something that has caused it stress or anxiety before.
The 'associative memory' plays a big part in the dog's everyday life. It often leads to both outbursts of joy and dread. Because dogs can remember experiences, people and places based on what they associate them with.
Another example is when a dog gets excited about a walk. It associates your behaviour, like putting your shoes on, with a walk in the park.
A blessing in disguise
As a dog owner, it can be sad to think that your dog doesn't remember the special moments the way humans do. But maybe we really have something to learn from our four-legged friends, such as remembering to seize the moment?
For dogs, the moment itself means as much as the memory we are left with– on good and bad terms.
Besides, the dog's associative memory is a blessing in disguise because, without this behaviour, it'd be impossible for us to train them. By creating new associations, you can completely transform its behaviour and therefore contribute to a better dog life by creating new associations.
Create positive associations
The knowledge we have about a dog's associative memory could make all the difference for a dog owner. When you know how their minds work, you can start using this knowledge to create good associations for the dog. If your dog associates everything with something good, wouldn't it always be happy?
When you have guests who give the dog positive attention, the dog will associate them with something good the next time they meet. And on the contrary, if they provide the dog negative attention, the dog will have a more reluctant behaviour toward that person the next time they meet.
Could have an episodical short time memory
Even if the dog's memory works quite differently from how our brains work, we can't completely exclude the possibility that dogs can still remember something, but for short periods—a so-called episodical short time memory.
A study conducted in Budapest implies that dogs can look back at a few previous experiences. However, they will only remember it for a short time.
For example, it might remember that you walked out the door ten minutes ago. Still, it will likely not remember a walk that happened over a month ago.