While dogs are of course well known for remembering common training commands, who their favourite people are and what sort of time they are likely to get fed or walked, dog owners often wonder how the memory of the dog actually works. Are dogs are capable of retaining long-term memories and processing memories in the same ways that people do?
Dogs do have certain forms of long-term memories that are based on emotions and previous experiences, but they do not recall the specifics of events, or the passage of time in a linear manner in the same way that people do.
If you are wondering how the memory of dogs works and what type of information they are capable of retaining on a long-term basis, read on for more information on dogs and their memories.
How we as humans recall past events and things that we remember is known as episodic memory, and it is closely connected to our concept of time. When we think about something such as “what did I have for breakfast?” or “when did my car last have a service?” we connect these events with a timescale in a linear way, and contextualise them in terms of how recently they happened, and at what stage in our life.
However, dogs do not have the same strong connection between time and memory; for instance, they may seek food at the same time each day because that is the routine that their body and digestive system has gotten into, but they are not thinking in terms of “it’s six o’clock, time for my tea!”
Dogs also cannot conceptualise past, present and future; dogs work very much in the present, and do not have a clear understanding of the abstract passage of time. Your dog might have had lots of fun at a particular dog park at some point in the past, and recall this and anticipate a repeat when they realise that you are heading back to the same dog park; but they do not think in terms of that prior visit having been last week, last year, or further back.
When dogs ask for food or walks or start to get ready for bed at around the same time each day, it can be easy to assume that this is due to retained memories and knowing that certain things happen at certain times of the day. Because we interpret and translate the world around us into terms that we as people can understand, we often assume that this is due to mental memory and an awareness of time passage by the dog, when in fact this is not the case.
Dogs are very strongly affected by their own natural rhythms, which follow a set routine; this is one of the reasons why routine and consistency are so important for dogs, and help to keep them happy and stable. When your dog “knows” it is time for food, or a walk, they have not looked at the clock and realised that you are running late, but rather, their internal biorhythms have chimed to tell their bodies that they need something, and they let you know accordingly.
You might wonder how the training of dogs fits in with their natural memory processes, and how they recall and recognise their training commands. This type of memory is known as procedural memory, and is based on the neural connections that your dog’s brain makes through repeated training.
If you trained your dog with a command and a treat reward, your dog’s neural pathways fire when you give the learned command, telling your dog’s body what to do and advising them that prior compliance has got them something that they liked. The brain of the dog is thus hard-wired via training to respond to positive experiences and the ability to earn something good, rather than being based on a conscious set of recalls about how when you said X, dog did Y, and you gave them Z.
Humans also utilise procedural memory too, albeit in different ways; for instance, we all learned how to use cutlery and brush our teeth when we were children, and now we do these things instinctively without thinking about how we physically need to perform the acts themselves.
Spatial memory refers to the ability to remember where things are, and how physical objects are arranged. This is similar to how we as people usually know within our own homes which drawer of the kitchen contains pans, and which one cutlery, and we go to it instinctively.
Dogs retain the same type of spatial memory in terms of knowing where all of the furniture within their home is, knowing what rooms they are allowed into, and what furniture and bedding is theirs.
If you have ever had cause to rearrange the furniture at home (particularly if your dog is not there at the time) or move house, you will likely have observed your dog investigating the new status quo and getting to grips with the change.
This type of ability to recognise change from a previous state, is one of the various presentations of long-term memory and imprinting in the dog, in the same way that they will learn to recall whether or not a certain visitor has been kind to them or is possibly a good bet to hit up for a treat!