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Do Dogs Remember the Past? What The Science Tells Us

Written by: Grant Piper

Last Updated on April 10, 2024 by Dogster Team

Do Dogs Remember the Past? What The Science Tells Us

One of the most difficult things about studying and working with animals is the fact that it is impossible to put yourself into the head of another animal. Animals cannot communicate with us in detailed ways. You can’t go into an animal’s head and sift through their memories. This has caused many people to have a lot of misunderstandings about dog memory. Do dogs remember the past? The answer to that question is yes. Dogs definitely remember the past. They just don’t remember things in the same way that humans do.

Here is everything you need to know about dog memory to help you better understand how your dog thinks, feels, and remembers.

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Dog Memory

There has been a long-standing debate about how animals perceive memory. Some people believe that to have true memories, you must be self-aware. If you have no awareness of self, how can you put yourself into a memory? This might sound strange to people, but there are many who think that animals lack crucial pieces of self-awareness. If you have no sense of individual identity, how can you rebuild a memory around a single entity of self? These are questions that have puzzled researchers for years, and they deeply affect how we study and understand dog memory.

Scientists and behaviorists have a good understanding of how dogs’ short-term memory works, but there are still questions about how dogs remember and interact with long-term memory.

portrait photo of Cesky Fousek dog
Image Credit: Jan Danek jdm.foto, Shutterstock

Dogs’ Short-Term Memory

Scientists have determined that dogs have a very small short-term memory. Studies have shown that dogs will only recall things for 2 minutes before they forget. That means if you are playing fetch with your dog, they will only remember the last couple of throws rather than the entire play session.

This small short-term memory also affects how dogs process training. Since dogs have such poor short-term memory, it is not beneficial to punish or reprimand a dog after the fact. For example, if a dog poops in the house and more than 2 minutes have passed, disciplining them will only confuse them as they won’t connect the discipline with the poop. That is why it is recommended to reprimand or praise a dog during the act or directly after the act.

So yes, dogs do remember the past, but not in the same way that people remember the past. Dogs have a very vivid memory of the previous 2 minutes, but after that, the memories begin to fall apart.

Dogs’ Long-Term Memory

If dogs have poor short-term memory, does that mean that they have better long-term memory? Not necessarily. Studies have shown that dogs might have a sense of episodic memory, which is where memories play out in your head, like a short movie. (Humans have episodic memory, for example.) However, dogs’ episodic memory is not as powerful as humans’.

cup guessing game
Image Credit: patpitchaya, Shutterstock

Associative Memory

Dogs do have a very strong sense of associative memory. Associative memory is a way to make connections with the past without fully remembering every little detail about what happened. Associative memory connects emotions, feelings, and experiences to a person, place, or object without exactly remembering what happened. For example, if you grab a leash to take your dog for a walk and they run to the door, they are likely to have an associative memory. Your dog will not remember the last walk they went on in great detail. In fact, they might not even remember that they went on a walk at all. Instead, your dog has a positive association with the leash. They know that the leash means fun, excitement, and exercise, even if they don’t remember why.

This can also be true of negative emotions. If you have a dog that doesn’t like riding in the car or getting into a crate, they might not remember exactly why they don’t want to do these things. Instead, they are likely to have a negative associative memory with the sight of these things.

This is a way to remember the past, but they are not remembering all of the details, and they aren’t playing out long stretches of time in their heads. You might cherish the memory of you and your dog playing at the beach for years to come, but your dog won’t remember that. Instead, they will remember having fun with you and having fun after getting into the car to go on a drive.

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Canine Smell Is Connected to Memory

One reason that dogs have such powerful associative memories is due to their powerful sense of smell. Have you ever walked into a familiar place where you have not been in a long time and been hit with a scent that immediately takes you back into the past? That is how dogs go through life. Smells have powerful connections to memories. Dogs use their sense of smell to form memories, especially associative memories. Dogs do not have great eyesight, and they don’t have great short-term memory, so they do a lot of remembering via their noses. In this way, dogs do remember the past, but they do it through smells and feelings more than images and moving memories.

A dog sniffing a scent
Image Credit: Pawtraits, Shutterstock

Do Dogs Remember Their Owners?

Yes. Dogs do remember their owners. Despite having poor short-term memory, dogs remember their owners every day that they are living with them. Dogs are sad when you leave and excited when you come home. They know your face, your voice, and your scent.

Dogs can also remember their past owners. However, once an owner is no longer around every day, the memory of them will often fade into an associative memory. That means if the dog liked their previous owner and comes in contact with them after a year, they will have a positive feeling about the owner, but they might not remember any details about them. The same goes for a bad owner. Dogs can carry negative associations about a person or location with them for years that will cause them to be anxious or upset because of things that happened in the past.

You don’t have to worry about your dog forgetting about you. They might not remember every detail about your time together, but they will always have some sort of sensory and emotional memory of you.

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Dogs do remember the past. The tricky part is trying to bridge a human understanding of memory with a dog’s understanding of memory. Dogs have poor recall, poor eyesight, and spotty episodic memory. That means they don’t remember things the same way you do. However, dogs do have strong associative memories and a strong link to memories via scent. Dogs can remember their owners, even past owners, for years. They can also recall training, words, and experiences long after the fact, but the way they remember it will not be the same way that people recall previous events.


Featured Image Credit: Rob Wee, Pixabay

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