There is no sweeter feeling than getting home to your best furry friend jumping up and down, wagging their tail with excitement about seeing you. Who doesn't feel loved when this happens?
There is no doubt that dogs are some of the most loyal, faithful, and affectionate animals. Even research says that owning a dog is good for us! No wonder they're known as our best friends. And this friendship lasts for years and years. So do dogs have memory images of you?
Even when families have had to make changes that involve their dogs living elsewhere, they don't forget their humans. Years later, they still recognize their former owners.
Does this mean that dogs have excellent memory? Yes, and no. When it comes to long-term memory, dogs have an almost uncanny ability to remember people over a long period of time. And yet, it's not a good idea to punish a dog for something they did a few hours before because they won't understand why you're doing it.
The way that a dog's memory works is entirely different from how people remember. Let's begin by diving into how memory works in dogs and the different types of memory our furry friends have, such as associative memory and short-term memory.
How does memory work in dogs?
Dogs have different types of memory that benefit them in varying scenarios. This includes short and long-term memory. However, just like the human brain works differently from what a dog's brain does, the way they remember is also quite different from human memory.
Of course, we can't talk to a dog and ask them what they remember and how they think, but we have done some research with exciting findings! This is what we know about how a dog's memory works:
How long does short-term memory last? A dog can remember non-essential information for roughly 2 minutes or less. This explains why your dog gets excited every time you throw a stick or a ball, and every time you enter the room.
The short-term memory bank of a dog allows them to sit and stay for a treat, but they cannot retain useless information. If they have information that doesn't promote their survival, they simply dump it instead of keeping it as a memory.
Just how short is a dog's short-term memory?
Your dog will likely be equally over the moon to see you when you come home from the shop or a two-week trip. The reality is that they have no idea whether you last interacted with them 5 minutes ago or 5 days ago.
Dogs typically have better short-term memories than the average animal. Chimpanzees can only remember things for around 20 seconds, and the average memory span of an animal is 27 seconds. A dog remembers for approximately 2 minutes, which makes them pretty high on the animal kingdom's memory spectrum!
Since dogs remember their people, even after years of separation, a dog's memory span must be capable of working long-term, right? Yes, dogs do have a long-term memory. However, it works differently for people.
Unlike people, dogs can't remember specific events from the past by mentally retrieving the information. A dog's long-term memory span is associative. Instead of having images and memories, they have imprints of events that happened, and imprints are quite different from memories.
Unlike humans, animals have a finely honed instinct. This is what helps them to survive in the wild. Researchers believe that part of this instinct comes from the dog's semantic memory, a type of long-term memory needed to remember everyday objects necessary for daily living.
Semantic memory is more like a deeply rooted knowledge than a memory, and it's what helps keep animals alive. It covers things needed for survival, like where they can find food and water.
Episodic memory vs. associative memory
What is episodic memory?
This type of memory involves consciously remembering things that happened, where and when they happened, and the emotions associated with what happened.
People have episodic memory, which gives them the ability to store and remember memories that are crystal clear and true to life. It's like recalling and playing off vivid images, like a mental movie. This helps them to remember these moments and relive them.
Dogs are different. They have something known as associative memory, which means they remember events through associations instead of actual memories.
What is associative memory?
Associative memory is a type of long-term memory that involves remembering relationships between two or more unrelated items.
For example, if you put your sneakers on every time you take your dog for a walk, they'll get excited every time they see you putting your sneakers on. The same goes for other associations, like saying the exact phrase when it's feeding time, playtime, or when you give them snacks. Your dog will learn the pattern of your behavior. Does your dog remember when he hears his food bowl that it’s time to eat?
The same applies to negative associations. If your dog knows that you take them to the vet every time they get in the car, and they don't like it, they'll get nervous every time you want them to get in. Your dog may be associating your car with going somewhere they don't want to go!
There's a reason why dogs sniff so much. They have a powerful sense of smell, and they form associations through scent. No wonder law enforcement use dogs to sniff out illegal drugs and weapons.
It's not only their noses that have potent abilities; dogs also have excellent hearing. They can hear things that humans can't, which makes them so valuable in search and rescue teams. They can hear people that are trapped over long distances and help rescue them.
Our canine companions are indeed everyday superheroes!
Living in the now
Dogs live in the present, so if they do something wrong, they have to be chastised immediately. If you scold your pet long after they've done something wrong, it will only make them unnecessarily anxious.
There's a common misconception that rubbing a dog's nose in urine will teach them not to do their business in the house. This is simply not true, especially with older dogs. Your pet won't have any memory of urinating in the house, so they won't understand why you are doing this to them. It will just make them sad and fearful of you.
Instead of trying this method, follow the tips in this article about how to train an older dog.
What about cats?
Even though this article is about dogs and the type of memory they have, we haven't forgotten about cat lovers. When it comes to memory, cats are quite different from dogs. You may think that your feline friends have even more flawed memories than dogs, but you'd be wrong.
Cats are super intelligent and have excellent memories! Just like with people, it depends on their intelligence and age, but overall, cats have a recall of around 10 years. You wouldn't say so considering their behavior towards their humans. It's evident that a dog recognizes you, whereby cats are great at ignoring you!
So, what can dogs remember?
Do dogs remember people? Yes, even after several years of not seeing them. Can your dog remember that they ate your couch a couple of hours ago, or what motivated them to do so? Probably not.
This doesn't mean your dog can't remember good times with you. They just have a different way of remembering. Your furry friend's associations with you, your home, and the life you share there is more than enough to keep them being the happy, loyal, and loving friends you enjoy having around.
They may not remember your life together in the past, but they recognize the present and enjoy living in the moment and enjoying every experience with you. Instead of holding on to the past, dogs genuinely live each day to the fullest. This is a lesson most of us could learn!