Dogs are one of the smartest mammals on the planet. With an immense intelligence, ability to be trained and learn tricks, and an intense love for their owners, it’s no surprise what dogs can do.
Dogs can remember who their owners are after two weeks. Dogs have excellent long-term memories. They can remember specific events and commands, and they remember who their owners are — even after being separated for weeks. Continued research about memory development is being conducted, but there is no doubt about a dog’s ability to recall his owner after being separated for a period of time.
The unconditional love that dogs show us can be incredibly touching — dogs remember their owners for years. To find out more about your dog’s memory retention, read on.
Do Dogs Have a Memory?
Some researchers feel that dogs do not have memories in the same way that humans do. If we think about memories only as something that has happened in the past, dogs do not remember things in the same way humans do.
While you might be sitting at work on a cold, miserable day remembering a long-ago holiday on the beach where you had a fantastic piña colada, your dog will not be thinking about the amazing game of fetch you played three weeks ago in the same way — that is the primary difference between their memories and ours (source).
The memories that dogs have are more related to learning and love. A dog who has been loved by its owner and given treats and affection will remember the owner and the feeling of affection they invoke.
Dogs also remember learning. That’s why they can easily remember tricks and commands. Researchers have discovered that dogs’ mental and emotional capacities are equal to a two-year-old human child.
This comparison also helps us understand the difference between knowledge and memory. Most people do not have many memories of being babies or young toddlers, but humans continue to remember the motor skills gained during that time, such as walking or grabbing.
There are quite a few questions about what dogs are capable of remembering and for how long. Studies have been conducted using the “do as I do” training method (source).
This method introduced dogs to a new action, such as touching an object with their nose. This is done by the dog mimicking its owner. After the trainer/owner does the unfamiliar action, the dog is told to “Do it,” and the dog repeats the action.
There is no positive reinforcement given to this task, thus removing the natural conditioning that is used to train dogs. A few minutes later, the owner will say, “do it” again, and the dog should repeat the same action without further prompting.
Most dogs can remember the action for up to an hour, but not much longer beyond that. This is indicative of the short-term memory that dogs have. However, there is still some debate about the nature of a dog’s longer-term memory and how it resembles human memory.
The ability to remember has long been thought of as something that was only accomplished by humans and primates. While dogs are considered very intelligent, most people did not believe that they had the same awareness as humans.
There are two main theories about dogs’ memories and how they function.
Some people have assumed for a long time that dogs only have a form of associative memory. Dogs can link two things together to create a response (source).
“Pavlov’s Dog” experiments were used as the basis for this belief. In this experiment, a dog would hear the sound of a bell and then be given food. After constant repetition, the dog would eventually begin to associate the sound of the bell with food and then begin salivating.
This neat little theory also explained how dogs would behave towards people. If a person showed affection to a dog, the dog would create a positive association. If a person kicks or yells at a dog, the association of fear or anger would similarly be created (source).
Every pet owner is concerned about the well-being of their dog. If you are worried about memories of abuse in your pet, read “Do Dogs Remember When You Hit Them?”
Based on this theory, your dog will remember you no matter how much time has elapsed since you have seen him or her. Dogs create that positive association by relating your height, physical appearance, smell, and other points to a positive memory.
However, this is not the only theory about a dog’s memory retention, and more recent studies indicate that dogs remember much more than we think.
Scientists link episodic memory to self-awareness, and there is a lot of debate about dogs having self-awareness in the same way as humans do (source). Unfortunately, since none of us are Doctor Dolittle, we have no finite way of knowing what dogs remember.
The “do as I do” training method has given us some indication of dogs’ abilities to remember events and tasks. In a variation of the training, dogs completed the same “Do it!” task by copying their owners and then being told to lie down.
Owners would then busy themselves with other things, and at some point, say the phrase “Do it!” Dogs were still able to recall the previous action, though there had been no training or reward. This indicates that dogs can certainly recall details from the past.
The main issue with these studies is that “do as I do” events are quite simple, and real-life memories are not. Dogs’ episodic memories seem to decay faster than human memories, but dogs are the first animal outside of primates who have exhibited these capabilities (source).
Dogs are very intelligent animals, and, as we learn more about them, we realize their vast ability to love and be loved. We also see how they show more complex human emotions than we previously suspected.
As man’s best friend, dogs rely on us for more than just food and treats. They miss us when we leave and rejoice at our return, even after five minutes. They may be part of our world, but we are at the center of theirs.