6 min read


Can Dogs Remember Bad Things?



6 min read


Can Dogs Remember Bad Things?


Approximately 3.3 million dogs enter U.S. animal shelters each year, according to the ASPCA or American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Of these animals, 1.6 million dogs are adopted. Pet problems are the primary reason that dogs are re-homed. 

The reasons for giving up a pet include problematic behaviors, aggressive behaviors, or health problems the owner could not handle. While there can be a number of reasons for the problematic or aggressive behaviors, ranging from temperament to poor training, there is concern that dogs may have enduring behavioral and health issues from prior experiences. It takes much time, patience and skill to work with animals to help them overcome their past bad treatment. 

With increasing attention to the needs of animals who were mistreated, there is much to be learned about how well dogs remember when bad things happen to them.


Signs a Dog Remembers Bad Things

Your dog cannot tell you what happened. The history of your dog's experiences is most likely to be demonstrated to you in the canine's behavior and reactions to people, sounds, and situations. Typically, when bad things have happened to dogs, they may be inclined to show fearful or aggressive behaviors. 

Mistreatment can cause a dog to have anxiety which is a trigger for "flight or fight" behaviors. Fear is manifested in the "flight' response to anxiety. Aggressive behavior is the "fight" response to anxiety. Overall, it will take patience to observe the dog and the circumstances that serve as triggers to these behaviors to understand the needs of your pet.

Behaviors that are indicative of fear in your dog will be apparent by such actions as cowering, hiding, or shaking. Your fearful pet may have separation anxiety, in which there is whimpering and even wetting when you leave the animal alone. You may see your fearful dog express anxiety with a tucked tail and lowered body. If your dog's memories are leading to signs of aggression, you will see bared teeth. Your dog may bite with seemingly few cues. Actually, when a dog is about to bite, their tail may be up and wagging to the left, the ears may appear alert and the dog may even be looking wide-eyed.

Observers of dogs who have been abused have noted the types of responses that dogs will show to triggers of their haunting, negative past. A trigger may be something as simple as a raised voice or arm movement. Some dogs are distressed by physical characteristics, such as facial hair. Studies have identified 8 behavior patterns that are typical of dogs that had bad experiences in their past. These studies were based on large surveys in which the behavior of dogs who had been mistreated was compared to a database of over 5000 dogs in the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ).

Body Language

Signs your dog remembers something bad from their past include:

  • Shaking
  • Cowering
  • Wag Tail
  • Whimpering
  • Biting
  • Tail Tucking
  • Exposed Teeth

Other Signs

Other signs your dog remembers bad things from their past are:

  • Excitability
  • Over-Attachment And Attention-Seeking Behavior
  • Rolling In Feces
  • Fear And Aggression Toward Strange People And Dogs
  • Fearful On Stairs
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent Barking
  • Bizarre Repetitive Behaviors

History of Dogs Remembering Their Dark Past


The American Humane Society was founded on October 9, 1877, in Cleveland, Ohio out of concern for the living conditions and mistreatment of farm animals and children. The mission of the organization was to prevent cruelty, abuse, neglect, and exploitation of children and animals and to assure that their interests and well-being are fully, effectively, and humanely guaranteed by an aware and caring society. 

By 1879, there was a commitment to education about the treatment of animals in schools. The fountains that you find in the center of many cities were promoted in 1785 as "humane fountains" so that horses could have a drink of water. In 1890, the humane society came out against corporal punishment against children. By 1894, the Humane Society had identified that persons, typically men, who were cruel to animals were also cruel to children. To this day, there continues to be a strong link of criminal behavior between the abuse of animals and children. 

By the mid-twentieth century, the work of the American Humane Society was addressing the overpopulation of pets and recommending the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats. There was also more attention to puppy mills. The organization established "Be Kind to Animals Week" as the first week in May. The first annual "Adopt A Dog Month" was not until 1981. Attention to the needs of animals and children to be protected from mistreatment and provided with clean, safe living conditions, food and medical care has been a centuries-long quest. Sadly, bad things continue to happen. 

In addition to the extreme forms of abuse and neglect that can happen to dogs, there are also bad things that are forms of emotional abuse. The following is a list of forms of emotional abuse that can happen to a dog, causing a long-term impact on the dog's ability to trust, maladaptive behavior patterns, and fear or aggressive responses to triggers associated with these negative experiences.

  • Rejecting - the active refusal to provide emotional support
  • Terrorizing - creating a climate of fear or unpredictable threats
  • Taunting - teasing, provoking or harassing
  • Isolating - actively preventing social interactions 
  • Abandonment - desertion or termination of care
  • Overpressuring - placing excessive demands or pressure to perform and achieve

Dogs may vary in their reactions to the bad things they have experienced, the same as people. There are many factors that impact their resiliency - age and duration of the bad thing, the intensity of mistreatment, the disposition and breed of the animal, the living conditions and the emotional impact of the experience on the animal. Of course, the dogs may vary too in the strength of the memory and the fading of the experience in their memories over time.

Science Behind a Dog's Memory


Scientists and veterinarians agree that dogs have all kinds of memories. Their memories may range from knowing where to find their food dish to recognizing people they have not seen for years. There are the accounts of dogs who were lost and traveled hundreds of miles to find their way home. People and pets have different types of memories. 

There is imprinting, which is an early bonding or modeling of behavior. There are also differences between short-term memory, working memory, episodic memory and long-term retrieval. A short-term memory is an awareness of what just happened. Working memory is critical for learning in school. It involves holding information and problems solving with that information and helps us to perform tasks such as math problems. Episodic memory is the memory of events in time. Long-term retrieval is those memories that are deeply stored and remain with us for months and years. 

Studies have been done with dogs to establish their memory capacities. When it comes to long-term memory, researchers believe that dogs will remember events that were strongly positive or negative and have a major impact on the animal's ability to survive. They also believe that dogs will remember events that have a powerful emotional impact. There have been conflicting reports as to the ability of dogs to have episodic memories. Some believe they do not and that is part of what makes them so fun. Others have pointed to studies in which the dogs repeated a behavior after a delay as evidence the dog remembered an event.

Forgetting is also referred to as memory decline. There has been less research on the memory decline of dogs. Interestingly, cats show less memory decline than dogs or even people. With dogs, their memory skills are typically tested with their ability to perform a behavior after a delay. Veterinary specialists in animal behavior have pointed out that the behavior of humans makes lasting impressions on animals. For example, the way an owner responds to a dog who is anxious can actually serve to heighten the animals' anxiety and stress, reinforcing the maladaptive behavior. 

Training Your Dog to Build Positive Memories


If your dog has been mistreated, you should seek assistance from specialists in dog training and behavior management. The environment you provide will play a critical role in helping your dog to learn to trust you. 

Your goal will be to provide a safe and calm environment. Some call this "Reverse Dominance" in which the dog is provided "wants" without having to work for them. Build your dog's confidence by structuring activities so the dog is successful and rewarded. Spend time with the dog - even just sitting quietly together. Ensure the dog gets exercise and has a healthy place to go to get away from the family noise. Think "Baby Steps". Go slowly as it will take time for the dog to adjust.

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By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 03/23/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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