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Do Dogs Think About the Past?

Yep, your dog remembers that you didn’t take them out for a walk yesterday.

by Chloe Conrad
August 17, 2016
A high contrast photo of a dog looking out of a screened window
Tony Began / Pexels

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For better or worse, remembering the past comes naturally to humans — whether you’re conjuring up what you ate for breakfast or how red you turned that time you called your teacher “mom.” This kind of event recollection is called episodic memory, and humans are pretty good at it. But when it comes to our pups, it can be hard to tell what they remember. So, do dogs think about the past the way we do? On the scale of “goldfish” to “elephant,” how unencumbered by the woes of yesterday are our canine friends?

How Much Do Dogs Remember?

Researchers investigated this question with a study on the topic of canine memory. In the journal Current Biology, the group published a report showing that dogs have episodic memory, too.

The study found that dogs can recall a person’s complex actions even when they don’t expect to have their memory tested. “The results of our study can be considered as a further step to break down artificially erected barriers between non-human animals and humans,” says Claudia Fugazza of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary. “Dogs are among the few species that people consider ‘clever,’ and yet we are still surprised whenever a study reveals that dogs and their pet parents may share some mental abilities despite our distant evolutionary relationship.”

Do Dogs Remember Yesterday?

In 2015, Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Colorado, reflected on the subject of canine memory when he saw an essay called “Dogs Don’t Remember,” published by Dr. Ira Hyman. He disagreed, saying, “So, all in all, unless others and I are missing something, dogs do remember yesterday...There are many examples of dogs and other animals ‘remembering yesterday.’ Think of dogs and other animals who have been severely abused. Think of dogs who remember where they and others peed and pooped, dogs who remember where their friends and foes live, dogs who change their behavior based on what they learned, and dogs who remember where they’re fed and where they’ve cached food and other objects. The list goes on and on.”

Studying Episodic Memory in Dogs

In the study led by Fugazza, the researchers took advantage of a training method called “Do as I Do.” Dogs trained to “Do as I Do” can watch a person complete an action and then do the action themselves. For example, if their person jumps in the air and then gives the “Do it!” command, the dog would jump in the air too.

The fact that dogs can be trained in this way wasn’t enough to prove episodic memory alone. That’s because it needed to be shown that dogs remember what they just saw a person do even when they weren’t expecting to be asked or rewarded. 

The researchers first trained 17 dogs to imitate human actions with the “Do as I Do” training method to get around this problem. Next, they did another round of training in which the researchers trained dogs to lie down after watching the human action, no matter what it was.

After the dogs had learned to lie down reliably, the researchers surprised them by saying, “Do It,” and the dogs did. In other words, the dogs recalled what they’d seen the person do even though they had no particular reason to think they’d need to remember. They showed episodic-like memory.

Dogs were tested in that way after one minute and after one hour. The results show they were able to recall the demonstrated actions after both short and long time intervals. However, their memory faded somewhat over time.

The researchers say that the same approach can most likely be used and adapted in a wide range of animal species to understand better how animals’ minds process their actions and that of others around them.

“From a broad evolutionary perspective, this implies that episodic-like memory is not unique and did not evolve only in primates but is a more widespread skill in the animal kingdom,” Fugazza says. “We suggest that dogs may provide a good model to study the complexity of episodic-like memory in a natural setting, especially because this species has the evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups.” For all those pet parents out there: your dogs are paying attention — and they’ll remember.

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Chloe Conrad

Chloe Conrad is a freelance writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area.