How Good Is a Dog’s Memory?

Discover the different types of memory and how they shape your dog’s recollections of people, places, and objects.

May 19, 2024By Donna Hobson
how good is dog memory

We have a plethora of memories from the time we spend with our fur babies, and it’s nice to think that they might share these memories too. The truth is, dogs do have memories, but they are quite different from that of a human.

While we use a mixture of long-term and episodic memories to shape our “selves” and our personalities, dogs live in the moment using association to remember details about the world around them.

Do Dogs Have Memories?

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Yes, it's proven that dogs possess memories, but many specifics, such as the extent to which dogs can remember, are still unknown.

However, many research teams - such as the one at the Duke Canine Cognition Centre - are engaging in studies to determine which cognitive strategies dogs use to create memories and whether all dogs 'remember' in the same way.

Cognition is the ability to use perception and memory to create knowledge and understanding. Findings from the Canine Health Foundation show that by age 8-10 weeks, puppies demonstrate both discrimination and memory. Meanwhile, longitudinal studies over the first two years of a dog's life indicate that these cognitive abilities improve with age.

How Good Is a Dog's Memory?

dog memory old connection love
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Dogs possess short short-term memory, meaning they can forget an event within two minutes.

While some species - such as dolphins - possess impressive long-term memories, this doesn't seem to be the case with dogs, who don't seem to retain memories beyond those two minutes. And a dog's "long-term memory" is a set of associative memories.

While you might remember the first day you picked up your puppy to take him home; or the first walk the two of you shared, your dog will not. Instead, dogs use a combination of sight and smell to remember you through facial recognition and your unique scent.

Your dog might not remember specific events during your relationship together. Still, they will remember you as they build positive associations for all the love and care you give them. This is the reason why your dog will be happy to see you when you return home for the day.

But that doesn't mean that a dog doesn't have strengths when it comes to memory; they often demonstrate good associative and episodic memories.

What Is Associative Memory?

dog leash walk
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Associative memory is one that creates a link or relationship between two seemingly separate things. For example, if your dog sees its leash, they understand it's time to go for a walk.

Ivan Pavlov conducted one of the most famous studies related to associative memory in dogs, a study that many other researchers have expanded upon to gain a greater understanding of the neural networks that dogs use to remember things.

In this way, dogs can recall people and places by attaching positive and negative associations to them in their memories. You can see examples of this in their everyday behavior - maybe they get excited as you prepare their evening meal or when you engage in ritualistic behaviors before going for a walk, such as putting on your shoes or picking up the keys.

However, these associative memories can cause problems if your dog carries negative attachments to particular objects or people. For example, they may experience fear or anxiety when faced with their carrier if they associate it with a trip to the vet.

What Is Episodic Memory?

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Credit: Image by Margarita Kochneva on Pixabay

Episodic memories are those which you have personally experienced and link to self-awareness. Some people describe episodic memory as a way of "time-traveling" through different phases of our life; it's not based on practice or repetition. And it is different from semantics, which involves remembering facts that we have no personal link to, such as the temperature on the surface of Venus.

Until recent years, scientists believed that only humans and a handful of animals possessed episodic memories. Still, a study by Current Biology provided strong evidence that dogs, too, may have episodic memory. In another piece, Dr. Stanley Coren recalled an interview with a man who had lost his short-term memory and relied on his assistance dog to help create new "episodic memories," such as where he had parked his car.

Still, how a dog's memory works is very different from our own; we use episodic memories to recall past information, which helps shape our personalities and lifestyles. In contrast, a dog does not rely on episodic memories to live its life; instead, they're more likely to use associative memory to understand the world around them.

Do Dogs Use Scent to Create Memories?

dog smell scent memory
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Scent is the primary sense that dogs use to explore and understand the world, so it stands to reason that scent would play a part in forming their associative memories. Your dog will attach scents to various people, places, and objects, which helps them build associations with these things.

Dogs can also use their sense of smell to pick up on human emotions, understanding when their owner is feeling sad, excited, or angry. They will often adjust their behavior accordingly using the associative memories that they attach to these scents.

Your dog won't remember every action you make and every little thing you do for them, but they will build a bank of happy and loving associations with you.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.