Breaking News: Researchers Discover That Dogs Can Remember Stuff!

Science has once again confirmed the obvious: Dogs can remember things.

Specifically, a new study shows that dogs might have something that resembles episodic memory in humans — the ability to remember and learn from events and experiences. It’s a different kind of memory than “semantic memory,” which is memory of facts, meanings, and concepts. While these are learned, they are not experiential or shared with others; they are general knowledge.

Note that I am not at all unsure about this; all the conditional language is how science tends to express “discoveries” about nonhumans doing things that some humans think only humans can do. Like remember or use language. I am sure that dogs can do both, often better than many humans do.

Much of what we formally teach dogs — to sit on cue, to play with their toys rather than chew our shoes, to eat their own food rather than graze the pickings on the kitchen counters — falls into the categories of learning facts and concepts.

But anyone who’s ever taken a puppy to a puppy class has been exposed to a kind of teaching that aims to create positive episodic memories. The goal of “socializing” a puppy — teaching him to love children or not fear loud noises or car horns or skateboards or to feel confident and comfortable when experiencing a loud, busy place — all of that builds on the ability to form and learn from experiences. Episodic memory, in other words.

If your puppy has very positive experiences at her vet’s clinic — Cali’s puppy vet gave out the best cookies — then your dog is less likely to be among those who tremble and shake when the car pulls into the clinic parking lot. Or, worse, those who associate every car ride with an unpleasant experience and don’t even want to get into the car.

If dogs didn’t have the ability to form episodic memories, why would Cali bounce around like a very excited pinball (well, she would if she weren’t securely attached to her doggy seatbelt) when we cross the bridge that takes us to Berkeley and sister Dora’s house?

So, yeah, the scientists have, once again, proven something really obvious about dogs.

What’s cool about this study, though, is that the researchers used “imitation” or “do as I do” training. This sort of training shows that dogs have great flexibility and creativity in their ability to learn and extrapolate. The training works a little like Simon Says. The person tells the dog to “watch me,” then does something unusual. In the study, it was touching an open umbrella. The person then tells the dog to “do it,” and the dog is supposed to imitate the human. It’s pretty cool that dogs can look at our very differently shaped bodies and imitate what we’re doing. That they can and eagerly do join in this silly and fun human game is just one of the, oh, trillions of wonderful things about dogs.

And, I think that the training itself requires that the dogs have episodic memory. It’s not like teaching a cue that means a specific action: You say sit, the dog’s butt hits the floor. Imitation training requires that the dog say to herself, in doggy language, hmmm, I shouldn’t do what I did last time we played this and she said “do it”; instead, I have to watch what she’s doing now and do that.

That is more similar to remembering what you experienced in a place (beach or vet clinic) and deciding whether you are happy to return to that place than it is to remembering that hearing this word means do that action. It’s a different kind of learning, and it is based on experience, not association or remembering a fact.

So. That the researchers could even do this study shows that dogs have episodic memory. Now, isn’t that obvious?

Just Where I Left It …

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Dogs’ memories — how well they remember things over time, whether they remember people, other dogs, or their mothers and siblings years after they last met — are the topic of much speculation and, lately, of serious research.
As Jana gets older and begins to show her age in some ways, I sometimes wonder whether she’s becoming forgetful or confused in the ways that many humans do as we age. She sometimes will stand and look at me and bark (and bark and bark), for example, and I cannot figure out what she wants or needs.
But then there are the encounters with smelly things on walks. She’ll find something — scraps of food, something dead, sometimes even worse things — that she wants to eat and that I do not want her to eat (or roll in). I’ll give her a stern, “Leave it,” and encourage her past the Thing. I’ll make a mental note to remember this Thing on our way home. A half hour or 45 minutes later, we’ll be walking home. The Thing will, of course, have completely slipped my sieve-like mind. Not Jana’s though. She beelines for it.
Sure, she could be smelling it as we approach. While that’s a reasonable explanation for Thing encounters on daily walks, the same thing can happen with encounters that are weeks or even months apart. At the dog beach we used to visit in Florida, she’d remember where a really good dead Thing had been — months later. It was never still there, and the tides, the wind, the cleanup crews, the other dogs and other animals would have obliterated any remaining scent. On hikes, she’ll dash off to pick up a rock she noticed on the way in — sometimes a couple hours later, as we head to the car. She seeks out remembered toys and beds at friends’ houses, too.
While generations of scientists and dog lovers have accepted the idea that dogs live fully in the moment — and they really seem to — that does not mean they don’t also remember and plan. Dogs clearly make “mental notes” of significant things, as we do. They appear to be far better than many of us at actually remembering to seek those things out (and remembering where to look for them).
We should all enlist this talent to keep track of our eyeglasses, car keys, and cellphones!