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Can Dogs Learn From Their Mistakes? Learning Behavior Explained (Vet-Reviewed)

Written by: Cassidy Sutton

Last Updated on July 3, 2024 by Dogster Team

sad and sick labrador retriever dog

Can Dogs Learn From Their Mistakes? Learning Behavior Explained (Vet-Reviewed)


Dr. Luqman Javed Photo


Dr. Luqman Javed

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Learn more »

Potty messes, chewed shoes, annoyingly begging at the table—these are a few scenarios every dog owner understands. After bringing home a new dog, it takes a while for your dog to grasp a hold of the house rules. But give them some time, and your dog will get the hang of it. It just takes a large dose of patience.

Dogs can absolutely learn from their mistakes. It all boils down to memory. Memory is a big reason why humans and animals can accomplish anything. After all, how could your dog learn all those commands, faces, and new places?

But just how good is a dog’s memory anyway? If they can run races, fight bad guys, and protect their owners, their memory must be good. Does that mean it works the same way as a human?

If these questions keep you up at night, we have some good news. We’re answering these questions in today’s post! Let’s get started.

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How Good Is a Dog’s Memory?

If it weren’t for their great memory and willingness to please their owners, dogs probably wouldn’t be man’s best friend. Can you imagine training a dog and never retaining information? No doubt, many dog owners would go berserk. Thankfully dogs retain information well. But there’s still much to learn about dog memory and cognitive function!

We know dogs have memories, but it’s still unknown how dogs navigate through those memories to learn. It’s also unclear if specific dog breeds outdo other breeds’ cognitive ability. But overall, their memory is top-notch.

To better understand this, we have to talk about the different types of memory and how this affects how dogs learn.

owner and her dog sits on bed
Image Credit: VK Studio, Shutterstock

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Memory

Short-term memory is the mind’s ability to store a small amount of information for a short time. On the other hand, long-term memory keeps an indefinite amount of information for an extended period.

Short-term memory does indeed live up to its name, lasting only for about 30 seconds on average. But with enough repetition and association, short-term memory can become long-term memory.

For example, the first time your dog learns a command, it may take them a slightly longer time to replicate it successfully. With repetition and associative learning (which we’ll describe shortly), they can commit the command to their long-term memory.

a dachshund dog looks sick lying on its owner
Image By: Leka Sergeeva, Shutterstock

Associative vs. Episodic 

Does your dog jump for joy when you reach for the leash and collar? If it does, this is associative memory. Your dog created a simple equation in its head: Leash + collar + walk = a great time!

But maybe the only time you get out the leash and collar is when it’s time to go to the vet. In that case, your dog associates the two items with a scary experience and tries to run for the hills.

Associative memory usually involves objects, people, and places. Episodic memory typically involves events (such as the time and place of their occurrence). For instance, a car accident might prevent your dog from loving car rides. Depending on how your dog learns, both types of memory can be positive or negative.

So, what does all this have to do with dogs making mistakes? It means that dogs learn from their mistakes just like we do. They need a few tries before understanding what’s good and bad. But how they shift through that information remains a mystery to scientists!

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Dogs Apologize—And They Mean It

More than anything, most well-trained dogs want to please their humans. They don’t want us to feel angry, disappointed, or frustrated with them, especially when they’re still learning. When dogs apologize, they tuck their tail between their legs, lay their ears down, and furrow their brow. From their faces, it’s clear they’re sorry and sometimes afraid of what will happen next.

It’s heartbreaking to see your pup like that, even when you’re fuming with anger. But what can you do?

You can always accept your dog’s apology. We know it’s easier said than done, but dogs are animals before they are companions. Sometimes, instinct gets the best of them. You can still reprimand your dog but don’t yell or hit. This only makes your dog afraid of you, and we don’t want that.

Do Dogs Know When Humans Make Mistakes?

Emotion is a big driver for dogs. They sense when you feel sad, stressed, or angry because they are able to perceive and understand human emotions.

Dogs don’t understand when you’ve made a mistake as a dog owner, but they do understand emotions and what it feels like to have feelings hurt.

When you make a mistake as a dog owner—and you will—show your dog you love them. Pet them, scratch them on the head, and kiss them if they’ll let you. Use a soft, affirming voice when speaking to your dog. Show them you still love them.

Owning a dog isn’t easy. But thankfully, dogs learn from their mistakes and love their owners unconditionally. All you can do is take the lesson and do better tomorrow!

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We all make mistakes, and your dog is no exception. Luckily, dogs have a great memory to help them learn from their mistakes. As a dog owner, you play a part in teaching your dog right from wrong. You’ll make mistakes as you go, but that’s part of the territory. Both you and your dog will learn from those mistakes. Isn’t that what life is all about?

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Featured Image Credit: My July, Shutterstock

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