Can dogs remember?

April 13, 2012

Dogs are among the most intelligent animals in the planet. A dog’s brain is only half as large as humans but these animals are certainly very smart… smarter than what most people think they are. But are these animals smart enough to remember? Memory is a vital element of intelligence. Dogs can certainly remember but canine memory is way too different from human memory.

A dog has an extraordinary memory for scent. This ability is what make dogs excel in bomb and narcotics detection. Because of this extraordinary memory for scent, canines were utilized in search and rescue operations. A dog has excellent memory for sounds. Studies have shown that dogs can identify familiar voices or sounds that were not heard for years.

We have heard many stories of how dogs that get lost would find their own way home. A dog that have buried a bone would unerringly find the exact spot where the treasure was buried even though the hole was already overgrown with grasses or covered with trash. Skeptics though would associate this situation to the dog’s ultra sensitive sense of smell and not due to the dog’s memory.

A dog’s capacity to learn is associated with some sort of rudimentary memory rather than true understanding. The dog may not understand why it is necessary to sit when the master gives the command but the dog will certainly remember and anticipate the treat that will be received. The dog will remember that sitting = treat. A dog’s memory is not as complicated as humans. Studies and experiments on canine behavior have shown that dog memories are primarily associative rather than real. A dog has to have some sort of exterior stimulus to be able to remember. The sight of a leash on the master’s hand will trigger the thought that a walk in the park is in the offing.

Associative memory, especially unpleasant ones can stay with the dog for a long time. A dog that has had a traumatic experience in a vet’s office will have a negative reaction as soon as door to the vet’s clinic is seen. The smell, the vet uniform and the people in the waiting room will be remembered by the dog. The door or even the car ride is associated with an unpleasant memory. This unpleasant memory can only be changed with positive associations. The car ride that was associated by the dog to vet visits can be replaced with trips to the dog park.

Research and experiments have indicated that dog’s memories are primarily associative in nature. Dogs have real memories as well but these are short time memories with about 10 to 20 seconds span. This means that scolding the dog minutes after it has had an accident inside the house will have no effect at all. The dog must be caught while doing the act and reprimanded so that the scolding will be associated by the pet to the undesirable behavior of popping inside the house. The dog may be caught and scolded by the owner for raiding the trash can. The dog remembers that poking around the trash would make momma red in the face with anger. However, dogs are also instinctual. Once the ultra sensitive nose of the dog gets a whiff of the enticing smell from the trash, the dog will forget everything and dig in.

Another school of thought has this theory that dogs can have long time memories. Dogs are capable of storing knowledge and information. This kind of memory is responsible for the dog’s ability to learn. Obviously, the capability of humans to have long term memory, to store knowledge and information is bigger and much complex than what dogs have. However, long time memory in dogs enables our four legged friends to do things they were not born to do. Dogs were not born toilet trained but because of long time memory, dogs would know when to use the doggie door to do their business outside.

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