How Long is a Dog’s Memory? How Does Your Pet’s Memory Work?

Recall how you got your dog and took him back with you? Can you still recall how naughty he was as a puppy? Or, if you adopted a shelter dog, do you remember when the two of you first bonded in the shelter?

As a dog parent, you probably remember all the highlights between you and your dog in great detail. You can recall all of their quirks and smile to yourself every time you think about it.

You may wonder if your pooch, remembers your pleasant memories as you do. Does she remember the day you went to the breeder and then picked her as your pet? Or when you went to the beach on a road trip and spent the whole afternoon chasing the waves?

Since dogs can be conditioned to behave properly or to do tricks, this means that their brain has a system of remembering different types of information. Otherwise, repeating a particular behavior on command or at their own will would be impossible for them.

Do Dogs Have Memory?

Yes, dogs do have memories. However, it doesn’t the same way as human memory. Yet, studies show canine remembrance may also not be as simple as we first thought.

You may notice that there is always an emphasis on positive reinforcement when it comes to dog training. This is because a reward-based training program is more likely than a punishment-based one (negative reinforcement) to improve your relationship with your dog.

Dogs are capable of “remembering” both positive and negative consequences. Over time they learn that these are related to something they just did a few seconds ago.

Notice how nothing in the first few days of training seems to happen, and then one day, everything just starts clicking? That’s the moment when your dog finally understood that your desired action merits something they like (reward).

When people do bad things to dogs, the same mechanism works. Many rescued dogs from abusive families, for example, always seem to be fearful of certain things, such as tall men, engine sounds, and slamming windows. That’s because they’re deeply connected to the previous suffering— reminding them of the trauma they’ve had many times before.

Your Dog’s Memory Span

The short-term memory for Dog is quite short at about 5 minutes, but it is much longer than the short-term memory of humans, which only lasts 15 to 30 seconds. Cats, on the other hand, remember for far longer at 16 hours.

Because of the span of their short-term memory, you can’t reprimand your dog for doing something bad when you didn’t catch him in the act.

For example, if you came home to see your dog urinating in the wrong place, scolding him wouldn’t work. He’ll just think you’ve got a problem with urine, but he won’t understand you’re mad about something he did hours ago. Thus, the best way to get a dog to understand that an action is bad is to stop him while he is doing it.

As for the long-term memory of dogs, there has not been much research done on it. While we can’t determine how long-term memory works for dogs right now, we know they also have it because they can recall the tricks you taught them for their entire lives.

Long-term memory also tends to manifest in lost dogs trying to find their way home. Even though on a thousand-mile journey, they had to walk, they were always kept going by something. They could be missing their owner, another pet, or the overall closeness of the place they grew up in.

Associative Memory in Dogs

Dogs seem to have good memories as they can retain what they have learned in the house and obedience training. During dog walks, they also appear to have their favorite places. For example, you may notice that some houses are always attracted to them, or that they like a certain shop because they know they’re going to get some doggy treats.

Although you may remember the specific details of your dog walk— such as the route you’ve taken, or how it suddenly rained when you were nearly home the other day — dogs don’t really have that kind of memory. Instead, the reason they appear to have “favorite places” in your chosen routes, because of their associative memory.

The concept of associative memory is more or less how your pooch remembers other people, places, and their special doggy experiences.

For instance, your dog will probably know that when he hears the clinks of his leash and harness, it is already time to walk. If this is the association he’s formed, you’ll see that when you jiggle the harness, he’ll get excited even if you don’t actually go out for a walk!

For everyone, associations are different. You can try to test how strong these associations are by doing what you think is the behavioral trigger once you notice how your dog connects different things. In fact, this is what makes a successful dog training.

Are you familiar with Pavlov’s research with dogs? He noticed that the dogs would salivate in the presence of their feeders, so he wondered whether a different association could be made to induce the same response.

Thus, he started ringing a bell when it’s already the dogs’ mealtime. Eventually, the dogs “learned” to salivate upon hearing a bell even if it didn’t involve food at all.

This is probably what made people realize that positive reinforcement is the best way to train dogs. When treats or rewards are associated with training, it makes them a lot more eager to learn right away.

Remembering Bad Experiences

Likewise, associative memory helps dogs “remember” their bad experiences as well. Nevertheless, this is not just a matter of neglect or abuse. It can also be induced by something, such as a visit to the veterinarian, that is actually good for her.

You do notice that in the waiting room of the vet, some dogs tend to be scared and unsettled. While dogs may not remember the exact moment that caused them pain in the veterinary, their memory tells them that something unpleasant and traumatic is about to happen there — simply due to familiarity.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can eventually override these bad associations by taking veterinarian trips that don’t involve any health check-ups.

It’s also worth noting that stronger associations take more effort and time to change. This means that you may have to take a number of “fun” trips before those regular check-ups to convince your dog that the vet’s clinic is a safe place.

Dogs and Memory Formation

Experts suggest that for a long time, positive and negative interactions tend to persist in the minds of our pets. Typically this is manifested by their associative memories. Such relationships, though, are usually formed from repetitive experiences.

There are also times when making a permanent mark on your dog’s memory takes just one occurrence. Usually, the degree of impact is high for this to happen. For example, it may take your pet only one frightening event to completely avoid a particular thing or location.

The ability of dogs to remember generally depends on how emotionally and consequentially your pet was involved in the event. Events that have a strong impact on dogs, like humans, are more likely to remain with them for life.

Hence, if you want to fill your dog’s memory with all the good stuff, you simply have to provide her with as many positive associations of her life with you.

Dogs and Their Experience of Time

You will note as a dog owner that your dog can “tell time” quite well. They know when it’s time to have breakfast go potty, or go for a stroll, after all. If you forget on schedule to do any of those things, they seem to be aware that something is wrong.

Hence, you may wonder whether dogs are capable of forming and remembering timelines in their minds. Did they get up from bed because they know that it’s already 7:00 AM, which is usually the time they have breakfast?

Time, as we know, is a purely human idea, without becoming too philosophical. It was developed mainly as a way to organize ourselves and our daily schedules. Dogs and the rest of the realm of animals “know time” because of their biological clocks that we also have.

Dogs may not be able to “tell” whether it’s 7:00 AM or 12:00 NN, but they still know when “it’s time” to do particular stuff. Aside from their biological clocks, they also recognize time through habits, pattern recognition, and association.

Patterns and Schedules

For dogs, schedules gradually become “ingrained” because they are quite prone to patterns and behaviors. For example, when you’re at home, your pooch knows because your smell in the area is strong. Your scent, however, tends to disappear a little when you leave for work.

If you leave and come back at the same time every single day, the pet will begin to recognize these habits. Finally, they ‘d know how to sit by the gate if you ‘re about to come back. Hence, if you open the door, they ‘re there to greet you!

While dogs can predict how long it takes for their owners to come home, more research is needed to examine whether dogs can tell the difference between weeks, months, or years that their owners have gone. For now, all we know is that if it happens frequently enough, they can “remember” the schedules.

Do Dogs Have a Concept of “Memorable Events”?

Humans have episodic memory — the kind of memory that deals with self-concept and autobiographical events. This is why you perfectly remember how your dog found her way to your heart in the first place.

A study carried out by Claudia Fugazza and her colleagues in 2016 suggests that dogs may have episodic memory as well. The research, however, still acknowledges the drawbacks of dog episodic memory. So it’s unlikely your dog will remember some moments in her history, but she knows she loves you because of her memory!

Even if your pooch may not exactly have a list of memorable events like you do, she is still constantly reminded of how fun it is to live as your dog.

Can Dogs Remember You Even If You’re Gone for a Long Time?

One of the most common fears of dog owners is being forgotten by their dogs, especially if they need to go away for a long time due to work. Would she forget about you if you won’t be in her life for years?

Dogs recognize people with their nose and eyes. Since their sense of smell is 40 times more powerful than ours, they’re bound to know who we’re supposed to be just by sniffing us.

Since your dog knows you through your smell and all the positive associations you have established in her life, no matter how long you’re gone, she’ll never forget you. For dogs, once you come back, the saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” becomes a living proof.

Conclusion: Dogs Remember the Best Things in Their Lives

Dogs can remember the best moments they’ve experienced in life, but probably not in the way you’d remember how good it was to you. While they can not play their best moments like a movie reel in their mind’s eye, they’re very good at remembering through association.

If dogs enjoy going to a specific place, playing with a particular toy and spending time with another pet or human, they will soon learn that all these activities are associated with fun and happiness. That’s why, when they see, hear, and smell signs of any of these causes, their anticipation is almost instantaneous.

Though we may never fully know what certain things mean to our dogs, they’re good at telling us that they “remember” these moments as part of their fondest dog memories!

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