As a dog owner, it probably won’t come as a great surprise to hear that dogs remember more than they’re usually given credit for, but that’s exactly what a new study published in Current Biology seems to suggest.
The study, which was authored by a research team that included Claudia Fugazza, Ákos Pogány, and Ádám Miklósi, showed that dogs can retain a memory of certain events or actions performed by their owners up to an hour after the fact.
Currently, it is believed that the human ability to incidentally store episodic memories—which basically means storing memories without an apparent, understood, or advantageous reason for doing so—is an ability that is linked to self-awareness.
The original idea of the study was to gauge the potential for episodic-like memory in dogs—meaning that the researchers intended to investigate whether or not dogs have mental abilities similar to those that allow the storage of episodic memories in humans.
Once they had an idea of exactly what it was that they wanted to test for, one of the trickiest parts for the team was to come up with a method for testing incidental, episodic-like memory storage in dogs. Because the research itself is groundbreaking in nature, the team had to essentially develop a unique test for gauging a dog’s ability to incidentally store episodic-like memories.
The researchers decided to use a test based on the “Do As I Do” training method, which was pioneered by Fugazza. With this training method, a dog learns to imitate an action that was previously performed by the handler. First, the handler performs the action to be imitated. After the action is performed, the handler gives the dog a command, such as “Do it!” to let the dog know that it is time to imitate the handler's action.
However, as it is with most positive training methods, the dog is likely to associate imitating the handler’s action with a positive outcome, since dogs are usually trained in the Do As I Do method by receiving praise and treats. If the dog expects that imitating the handler’s action will result in an immediate benefit (praise or treats), then the memory is not being stored incidentally, since the dog is remembering the handler’s action with the understanding that repeating it will result in an immediate benefit of some kind.
However, with the team’s modified version of Do As I Do, the dogs in the study were shown the actions they were to imitate with time delays reaching up to one hour from the time when they were initially performed by the handler and the time when the dogs were given the “Do it!” command (with the idea that longer delays would weaken the ability of dogs to recall the action to be imitated). Additionally, since the recall test is meant to be unexpected, their handlers would perform actions that the dogs were unfamiliar with.
One example included a handler placing an opened umbrella on the floor and briefly touching the top portion of it with his hand as his dog watches. After seeing the action, the dog was led away from the umbrella so that it was out of sight, only to return minutes later and touch the umbrella with a paw once handler gave the “Do it!” command.
The ability to mentally travel backwards in time to a certain memory is a feature of episodic memory, and it appears that may have been what the dogs in this study were doing when they replicated their handlers’ actions.
So, does this study prove that dogs, like humans, have a sense of self-awareness? Not quite.
While dogs do appear to show abilities that are associated with self-awareness, there is still no evidence to definitively prove self-awareness in dogs.
But, it is good to know that our dogs are capable of remembering much more than we give them credit for. After all, as responsible dog owners it’s on us to make sure that their excellent memories are filled with excellent memories.