Can Dogs Remember Past Events?

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Introduction

We've all been there: You're bringing your pup to the vet and your pup is super excited, eyes gleaming and tail wagging as you two hop into the car. But as soon as you turn down the road the vet's office is on, your pup won't stop whining. 

And when you pull into the parking lot, your pup is already hiding from you. It's pretty clear that your pup knows exactly where you two are going. Does your pooch really remember that last visit where the vet had to shave all of your pup's fur, or give your pooch an awful pill? Or is this just coincidence?

Signs Your Dog Can Remember Past Events

New studies suggest that dogs, like humans, can recall prior events. This leads to the belief that dogs have something called “episodic memory,” or the ability to mentally travel back in time and recall specific events. Even more astonishing is that the existence of episodic memory is also a possible sign of self-awareness in dogs. 

Since we can't ask dogs what is really going on inside their heads, it has been up to researchers analyzing dog behaviors to determine whether dogs are really remembering a prior event or drawing on semantic memory (the memory of information necessary for survival).

Body Language

Signs your dog remembers include:
  • Alert
  • Head tilting
  • Raise ears

Other Signs

Other signs to look out for are:
  • Getting excited at certain people or objects
  • Associating a sound, smell or visual cue with a known behavior
  • Avoiding certain areas or objects

The Science Behind Dogs Remembering

Us humans have three different types of memories:

  1. Procedural Memory. Procedural memory, sometimes called muscle or motor memory,  is the unconscious memory that gives us the ability to gain learned skills. Dogs have this memory too (think playing fetch).
  2. Semantic Memory. Semantic memory is the ability to memorize real-world facts and data. Dogs, too, also have this memory (think understanding "sit" to mean putting their booty on the ground). 
  3. Episodic Memory. Episodic memory relates directly to past events. This is our ability to remember a conversation at school, or feelings on your first day of school. Researchers have studied dogs' ability to remember for some time now, and the debate still continues on whether dogs possess this kind of memory.

Researchers have believed that unlike humans, dogs do not have episodic memory. For instance, a dog may know how to respond to the command "give paw," but they lack any memory of the events leading up to learning that command. This is similar to young humans learning vital skills - by the age of 4, most humans have learned the ability to crawl or walk, but lack any mental ability to remember the events leading up to learning the action. 

However, studies have shown that dogs may have "episodic-like" memories. In 2016, researchers found that dogs are able to remember events they witness. In the context of the study, dogs were able to remember actions performed by a trainer. Researchers tested whether dogs have episodic memories by teaching them to "do as I do." For instance, if the trainer touched an object, then the dog would copy them and touch the object, too. The command the dogs were taught in order to repeat the action was “Do it.”

However, as far as these researchers were able to tell, these memories faded over time. In the study, dogs were consistently able to remember what their owners had done, but most of the time not for more than an hour after the event. This suggests that although your dog remembers who you are, your pup probably does not reflect on moments of bonding the same way you do. So ultimately, dogs may have short-term, episodic memory.  This suggests that our pups have more complex inner lives than what we originally thought. Although dogs may not experience memory exactly the same way us humans do, they are capable of forming memories the same way. So don't worry, your dog will not forget you!

Training Your Dog to "Do As I Do"

"Do As I Do" is a way to teach your pooch how to observe an action and then imitate that action after hearing the command, "Do it."  First, you will need three distinct tricks that your dog already understands how to do. When your dog is first learning the concept, it’s important that you and your dog always stay in the same starting position, preferably facing each other.

  1. With your dog in a ‘sit’ or ‘down,’ position, give your pup the cue ‘stay’ (previously learned of course) and then demonstrate the behavior.
  2. Go back to your initial starting position. Give the command ‘Do it’, followed by the cue for the known behavior. So, if you demonstrated ‘paw’, you’ll say ‘Do-it’, then give 'paw’.
  3. Your pup should perform the known behavior.
  4. Reward your pup with treats!

Once you have repeated this sequence with all three of the tricks, you will want to avoid having your dog associate the command "do it" with the original trick. Once your pup starts to perform the trick immediately after you say ‘do-it’, before you give the command to the behavior, it’s time for the second phase. You will need 3 more previously-trained tricks for this phase and will add them to the first thee tricks. This will help your dog generalize the concept ‘Do-it’ rather than using the command for specific behaviors.

Once your dog consistently offers the trick with the cue ‘do-it’ alone, the hardest part of the training is done. You can now begin to introduce new tricks.

  1. Demonstrate the new trick.
  2. Give the new cue
  3. Give the cue ‘do-it’
  4. Your pup should perform the new behavior that you have demonstrated
  5. Reward with lots of treats!!

After you have done this a few times, you should be able to stop the demonstration and your pup should respond to the new cue alone.

How to React to Your Dog Remembering Past Events:

  • Remember to treat your dog well and be understanding if they have come from a rough background.
  • Use their excellent memories as a training experience.