Anyone with a pet has had this question pop into their mind at one time or another. Walking your dogs through a crowded park, you start to wonder if they would remember you if they ever went missing, or if they also have fond memories of that summer you spent at the beach together.
So how long is a dog’s memory? The length of a dog’s memory really depends on what your concept of “remembering” might be and the vivid details of what, when, and where that you might expect all memories to have.
Dogs have been proven to have practically no short-term memory of trivial events like fun holidays at the beach or a stroll, but have a specialized memory system based on survival needs with which they associate certain people or things with food sources or danger (source).
“When it comes to short-term memory, it seems to work almost the same for all animals.”Dr. Johan Lind, professor of ethology at Stockholm University in Sweden
Types of Memory in Dogs
Dogs’ memory works considerably differently than a memory in humans. They have different types of memory that benefit them in different scenarios and lack other types that we possess.
Short-term Memory of Dogs
The short-term memory span of a dog for non-essential information is roughly less than two minutes. This explains why your dog is excited to see you every single time you enter the room and acts crazy whenever you throw a ball (source).
Dogs do have short-term memory banks that allow them to sit and stay while waiting for a treat, but they just cannot seem to retain useless information, so anything that does not promote their ability to survive is dumped.
Your dog will remember that parks offer sustenance if he found a bone there previously, but he probably won’t remember that time you accidentally fell in the lake while playing fetch or how funny you looked when you climbed out.
Specialized Memory in Dogs
Animals have a natural instinct that allows them to survive in the wild. It is believed that a large part of that instinct is derived from their semantic memory – or general knowledge of the world around them – that would allow their pack to grow and evolve in the wild.
This semantic memory keeps animals alive. It leads them to a mate, guides their behavior toward predators, reminds them to forage, store food, and bed down for the winter, fly south, and so forth.
It is a form of knowing rather than remembering.
Dogs’ specialized memory allows them to remember where food and water are available, and also when if they’ve been fed at the same place and time every day.
These are the actions of a creature of habit, not necessarily memory.
Long-term Memory of Dogs
Dogs, unlike human beings, cannot recollect specific events from their past by mentally looking backward and retrieving the data, ergo their lives presumably do not flash before their eyes during moments of extreme danger.
To best understand episodic memory, you would have to think back to an event in your life that crushed your soul or made it soar.
Instantly, you are filled with every twinge and tingle you felt that day. Episodic memory appears to be a skill only humans over 4 seem to possess (source).
Dogs tested do seem to have episodic-like memory, however, the success rate diminishes with every passing second.
While scientists have made a lot of progress investigating this memory in rodents, primates, and birds, studies with dogs have not been as widely conducted as of yet.
If Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov taught us anything, it’s that animals can be conditioned into having physiological reactions based on external stimuli.
Pavlovian conditioning is based on recognizing what brings about an unconditioned response and using that to your advantage (source).
Pavlov’s entire theory was based on his belief in semantic memory. He speculated that dogs would reflexively salivate when food was served and inserted test tubes in dogs’ cheeks to measure the amount of saliva produced during feeding time.
But Pavlov made a discovery he was not expecting when he realized that the dogs began to salivate not only at the sight of the food but upon hearing the footsteps of his assistant who brought the food.
Thereafter, Pavlov spent his life studying this new phenomenon.
For Pavlov’s conditioning experiment to work, he had to create a relationship between the bell and the food in his test dogs’ memory banks.
To do this, he had to produce the food immediately after ringing the bell. Too long a delay between stimuli caused the experiment to fail.
After consistently producing both bell and food over and over again, thereafter, any time the dogs heard the first stimulus, the bell, they would expect the food to appear and instinctively began salivating.
The experiment went on to try different sounding bells; the results stayed the same.
Dog Memory and Training
There are various ways to train dogs. Most of these rely on the dog’s ability to file certain aspects of training away as a form of semantic and associative memory depending on what occurred when they did a specific thing and whether it was a good or bad outcome.
If a dog jumping on your leg results in a consistent and uncomfortable knee to his chest, he will associate the two and stop the behavior.
He might still attempt to jump on somebody else’s leg until he recognizes that the uncomfortable thing happens every time he jumps up on someone.
Sit and stay commands are often taught using treat training. When the dog follows the command to sit, he gets a piece of sausage.
He then learns that if he stays in this position, there will be more sausage to come. This important information is filed away in his memory banks.
Research indicates that while dogs can be trained to do specific tasks by rote, they do not remember the actual training in the same way a child does not remember the exact moment they learn to walk or talk (source).
Dog Memory and Punishment
Animal behaviorists often remind dog owners that punishing a dog hours after an incident is useful to neither man nor dog.
While a smack on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper might make you feel like you have her discipline completely under control, you don’t.
If a dog messed the carpet while you were at work, yelling about it six hours later is not effective because he does not have the ability to do the mental gymnastics required to associate your angry noises with the mess.
But if he messes in front of you and you immediately shout at him or send him outside, he might figure it out quickly.
After repeat performances of action and consequence, he will only then remember that he is not allowed to mess in the house and should go outside instead.
Distinguishing Between Associative Memory and Real Memory
Now that we know dogs remember people and places based on simple association, how can you tell whether your dog is relying on associative memory or real memory when he displays anticipation, excitement, or even fear regarding a repeated event? The short answer: You can’t.
After a traumatic vet visit, your dog might associate all car rides with trauma and refuse to get into your car until this memory can be overridden by good car trips to fun places.
The good needs to outweigh the bad significantly before his system will reset.
Similarly, if you wear the same coat every single time you get ready for a dog walk, your canine will respond the same way every time you put it on, even if you have no intention of going for a walk in a negative 60 degree Minnesota winter.
Try putting on a different coat while making the same motions you usually do before a walk and your dog will, in all probability, not react at all.
But if you use the new coat for the next three or four dog walks, all of a sudden, he associates the new coat with walks and ignores the old one.
Dogs’ Memory of Previous and Current Owners
While it would be accurate to say that a dog associates their owner with food, water, and safety, a dog probably recognizes their owner mostly through scent, which is like reading someone’s biography for a dog.
While not scientifically proven, it is believed that dogs never forget a smell.
Dogs have been known to recognize and instantly react to their owners years after getting lost or being separated, so their specialized long-term memory definitely can include remembering the smell of the human they consider “home.”
Scientists have spent years trying to understand dogs’ super-keen sense of smell so it can be used to our advantage.
Working dogs are already trained to sniff out bombs, drugs, gas leaks, and poisonous substances, so the possibilities are endless when it comes to this superpower (source).
Dogs’ Memory of Their Past
A rescue dog may very well remember being hungry, or abused, but not in the way humans would remember it.
Where our memories are colored by time and emotions, it is believed dogs do not have the ability to recreate their experiences in a coherent timeline.
Dogs cannot stroll down memory lane and pick and choose what or when they want to revisit.
Their memory may just be limited to knowing which rubbish bins had the best food and which restaurants’ back doors to avoid.
As sweet new memories drown out the older ones, in time a rescue dog may even forget where the best pickings were on the street and not remember their old life at all.
Although, they might still retain muscle memory where they cower at quick movements and whimper at loud sounds.
Dogs’ Memory of Other Dogs
Two dogs meeting each other briefly at the vet in all probability will not remember each other, and any subsequent meeting would be like it’s the first meeting all over again.
Unless something truly outstanding happened, any memory of the encounter will be binned almost immediately.
Dogs that share a history, perhaps living under the same roof at one time, would be more likely to remember each other when reconnecting due to smell.
For the dogs, no discernible time would have passed since their last encounter and once recognized, it would be business as usual.
Dogs’ Memory of Their Family
It is understood that for evolutionary reasons, a mother dog has some semantic memory of her litter to ensure that she does not accidentally mate with one of her own pups to keep the bloodline strong and without defects.
While in the wild, young animals are routinely forced to “leave the nest” to ensure this does not happen, in domestic dogs, an unneutered male would mate with a female in heat, regardless of family ties.
In domesticated animals, the self-preservation instincts to keep the line going supersedes the need to protect from genetic defects and abnormalities.
The onus rests with the dogs’ owner to separate related animals during mating season.
Connection Between Memory and Time
Although it might seem like Fido remembers that 6 pm is dinnertime, or that you leave for work every morning at 7:20, time is not a real concept for dogs.
Instead, they rely on their circadian rhythm to remind them that food will be served now or that it’s time to follow you to your car.
These daily events are merely noted in their biological clocks to ensure they don’t lose out on an important meal or car chase. Furthermore, because they lack the ability to conquer mind, space, and time, dogs lack the art of forward planning.
Loss of Memory in Senior Dogs
Just like their owners, senior dogs can also be affected by changes in the brain that lead to confusion, irritability, and memory loss.
Sadly, canine cognitive dysfunction, or doggy dementia, affects a significantly high number of aging dogs every year.
Similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, this illness can be incredibly taxing on the dog and its human as it slowly seems to forget the people it loves, where the food bowl usually stays, and how to ask to go outside when nature calls, generally appearing disoriented and confused.
A previously well-trained dog that suddenly starts making a mess in the house, or tries to get out by scratching on the wrong side of the door, or forgets the route you usually walk, might be diagnosed with some form of this dysfunction after other illnesses are ruled out.
And while you might second-guess the forgetfulness initially, the symptoms generally start to increase until you are forced to seek professional help from a veterinarian.
Unfortunately, there are no tricks to help a senile dog overcome this state and dementia is a progressive disease.
To find out how dog’s brain and memory works, check this video below:
Improving Memory in Senior Dogs
Studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition circa 2012 listed medium-chain triglycerides and nutrient blends containing fish oil, B vitamins, antioxidants, and arginine as potential energy boosters for the animal brain.
The research suggested that adding these nutrients to a dog’s daily meal could help support and maintain brain function in the specific areas of memory, social interaction, and learning in much the same way humans are given supplements to assist in these same areas (source).
None of these vitamins or nutrients will suddenly give your dog photographic memory or allow him to memorize the times’ tables, but they can possibly delay early onset doggy dementia and senility, so it’s definitely worth looking into and discussing with your vet.
“We’ve done work with pet owners, and to see those visible changes that occur in [pets’] attention span, in their memory, their activity, that’s been very rewarding.”Janet Jackson, vice president and director at Nestle Purina PetCare Nutrition Research
While it might seem sad that our animals don’t experience our lives together with the same way we do, it’s also a little heartening to know that they probably also don’t endure separation angst or get upset with us for not being around as much as we would want.
Minutes after shouting at your dog for knocking over a potted plant in the middle of the lounge with his exuberant tail swishes, he turns to look at you as though you are the god that invented doggy treats, backrubs, and doggy parks.
It’s only through a realization that anthropomorphizing them is not in their best interests that we might start looking at them with a different mindset, treating them like the dogs they are – with all the limitations that might come with it – instead of little human people.
So while they might not have memories of all the romps in the park or beach vacations or even remember that you rescued them as tiny puppies living in abject misery, you remember and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.
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