Have you ever wondered why your dog behaves like he does? What causes him to bounce with excitement when you pick up a leash? Why does he sit next to Aunt Nancy every time she pays a visit, but never next to Uncle Frank? Why is a car ride terrifying? Researchers have found that dogs may have more than associative memories racing through their brains, influencing their behavior. Now, some studies show dogs have the mental faculty for episodic memory, yet it is nowhere near as strong as those demonstrated by the human mind with regards to retention.
Associative Memory in Dogs
At this point, we know that dogs have an amazing associative memory. Similar to that of a human’s, a dog’s associative memories are built on data gained through their senses. They primarily construct visual memories, auditory memories, and especially olfactory memories. By observing your dog’s behavior, you may be able to understand why certain objects, scents, or sounds may trigger a predictable response from your dog. If you grab a leash, your dog immediately rises from his bed and sits in front of you. The dog has associated a leash with what it brings next: a walk outdoors together. Your dog pays little attention when you use a microwave, but when he begins to smell fresh popcorn, he accesses associative memory that informs him that a treat will soon be tossed his way. The sound of an automatic coffee maker cues his memory to sit beside his food dish because you will soon be out of bed to serve breakfast.
When you understand a bit about your dog’s associative memory, you may be in a better position to train and discipline your dog. Understanding associative memory can aid in basic training—how to sit or come—when commands and behaviors promise a reward of a treat or praise. Once you know how your dog may be interpreting his associative memory, you may be able to better predict his behaviors or to command a physical response from him at a crucial time. Situations will arise with your pet in which an element of danger may exist. When the time comes, you want to be in control of your pet so it stays safe and, most importantly, others remain safe. You want to avoid your dog creating associative memories built on fear, anxiety, or aggression.
Episodic Memory in Dogs
Of course, you recall that one time six years ago when your dog was nipped by the neighbor’s dog at the crosswalk by the park entrance. Had this really been your experience, you would likely remember vivid details about the experience: the time of day, the weather, the order of events that took place immediately before, during, and after the ordeal. Your episodic memory is hard at work as you effortlessly recall what happened. This incident is a personal experience. It is a tiny piece of history that makes you who you are. Your dog, however, probably forgot all the specifics of the occurrence within an hour. This is not to say that no memories were made. What he could remember may be pain and fear—associative memories tied to the place where it happened or the object that caused it: a dog, in general, not that particular dog. This does not mean a dog’s capacity for episodic memory is non-existent. Recent studies suggest dogs may retain episodic memories for a short time and have, because of this, a slight recognition of the “self.”
In one recent study, researchers found that many dogs could retain episodic memories for less than a minute. Some demonstrated retention for several minutes, but nearly all in the experiment had forgotten the episodic memory in an hour or less. In the study, dogs were trained to obey the “do it” command, which was for them to repeat an action performed by the trainer. The repeated actions included placing paws on a chair or standing upon a platform. Next, the trainer “untrained” the dog by surprising it with a new command, one that did not require the dog to mimic the trainer. For instance, the trainer may have told the dog to sit instead of getting onto the platform as the trainer had done prior to the command. At first, dogs anticipated the original expectation and would copy the trainer’s action. After practice, the dog “unlearned” the anticipated response and instead complied with the trainer’s new verbal command. Once the dog became successful with this, the trainer would randomly alternate between using the new command and the “do it” command. This research indicates the use of episodic memory because it is asking the dog to perform in a way that he did in the past. The dog must remember what he had learned and perform based on that which was learned in the memory and not what is currently being practiced with the trainer. Similar studies are being conducted that appeal more to dogs’ olfactory data instead of visual or verbal data.
As we continue to learn about how dogs build, process, and retain associative and episodic memories, we will better understand our relationship with these animals. Doing so may help reveal a dog’s potential skills and behaviors. Having an awareness of how a dog thinks, remembers, and learns can help dog owners to live in harmony with their pets.