When we think of animals with impressive memories, it’s usually elephants, dolphins, and horses at the top of the list. So, how do our canine friends measure up? It’s actually a lot better than we might expect!
Research has shown that dogs have a remarkable capacity to remember and recollect. Their strongest senses, particularly smell and hearing, have a large part to play in this. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the science behind canine memory, behaviour patterns, and amazing examples of dogs recalling people and places from the past.
Signs That a Dog Remembers Things from the Past
Any dog’s behavior in response to a memory trigger will depend entirely on whether it represents a positive or negative experience from the past.
In the case of positive experiences, a dog will firstly demonstrate a rapid increase in alertness. They will be on their feet, focused on the person, item, or area that triggers the memory. Their ears will be raised, and they will most likely wag their tail. As they draw closer to the trigger of their memory, they are likely to run toward it. If they are on a leash, they will pull on it and will tend not to respond to instructions to stop.
Once they reach their target, they will sniff intently and may jump up, particularly if it is a person that they recognize. There will also be audio cues; the dog is likely to bark to indicate urgency in meeting their target, and they may also whine or cry in the presence of a person from the past, especially when they are embraced. Watch out for signs of overexcitement, such as rapid breathing, excessive panting, and even fainting.
If a dog notices a trigger of a negative memory, their behavior pattern will also begin with increased alertness, though this is usually accompanied by dropped ears, a flat tail, and growling. As they approach the trigger, they may demonstrate unusual signs of aggression, or they may withdraw and show behaviors indicative of fear.
There can also be a mix. In the case of aggression, this will usually involve increased growling, barking, staring, a lack of responsiveness to vocal commands, pulling on the leash, and jumping up. If a dog is afraid, they will stay close to their owner, tilt their head away from the trigger, whine or howl, and they may be shaking. Once these behaviors are noticed, it is best to remove the dog from the situation as quickly as possible.
History of Dogs' Memories
The question of how much dogs remember from the past is perennial; prompting endless streams of anecdotal evidence, as well as scholarly research. The extent of early memory recollection seems to depend on how puppies are reared. Those that remain with their mother for the first 8 weeks tend to remember her (as well as their siblings) in later life. Similarly, females who are with their puppies for 8 weeks and beyond imprint a memory of them, and will show signs of recollection, even once they reach adulthood.
There are countless stories of dogs remembering humans that they have not seen for a long time. Take military families, for example. Periods of separation between deployed officers and their dogs can last from several weeks to years at a time. However, as demonstrated in thousands of videos online, reunions are often emotional experiences for all parties! Dogs are usually invited to go to the door or enter a room, where a returning serviceman or woman is waiting for them. In a matter of seconds, dogs go through all of the stages of positive recollection, as above, often jumping all over their old friend!
Similarly, a recent video from a group of Golden Retriever owners in the UK demonstrated that not only did dogs from the same litter recognize their mother on their first birthday, but they remembered their siblings, too. They all showed signs of positive recollection, including sniffing, tail wagging, and friendly play.
The Science Behind Dogs Remembering Things
The mechanism behind canine memory is quite distinct from that of humans. Dogs have developed a process called imprinting, which utilises the senses of sight and smell to create memories. Their ability to imprint depends on their experience as a puppy, particularly during the first eight weeks of life. At this pivotal time, puppies develop a bond with their mother that allows them to begin the process of imprinting, and provides the skills to continue making memories as they grow.
There is some natural variance in the ability of different breeds to remember. Border Collies, German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers are known for their memory-building and recollection abilities, which make them especially receptive to training.
Training a Dog's Memory
The good news is that there are no particular breeds that have a poor memory. The challenge is in harnessing your dog’s ability to remember and putting it to good use!
Positive reinforcement techniques provide the key to effective training. If you are training a recently-weaned puppy, you will be looking to teach basic behaviors, such as sitting, responding to their name, and housetraining.
In terms of the latter, be prepared to take your dog outside regularly at the start. Accidents will happen, and they should not be punished. Instead, reward your dog with a treat, cuddle, or extra attention every time they get it right. Over time, they will learn to make a positive association between doing their business and going outside, and they will let you know when it’s time to go!
Helping your dog to deal with negative memories represents more of a challenge. You will need to be patient, and prepare for the long haul in correcting their behaviour. Controlled exposure to the trigger of a bad memory, with plenty of encouragement, allows your dog to gradually disassociate the negative aspect of the memory. As much as your instinct is to comfort a dog in distress, this action may be interpreted as a reward, which reinforces the association. Instead, help your dog to build their confidence in a challenging situation.
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 03/24/2018, edited: 04/06/2020