A dog playing with some different colored cones on the grass.

How Good Is A Dog’s Memory?

5 mins |

We as dog owners love to see our dog waving its tail and greeting us when we return home from work. Our dog learns new commands when trained and remembers the training. However, do they remember past events, and what about short-term memory? How good is a dog’s memory in general?

A dog’s memory is not as good as a human’s. Research suggests a dog’s short-term memory is weak, and they can only remember things and events for just 2 minutes. However, a dog’s associative memory is good. Associative memory deals with the interaction and association of objects, things, and places.

How Does A Dog’s Memory Work?

A dog checking under a blue-colored cone on the grass.
You can do it, buddy!

Dogs don’t remember things the same way humans do. Dogs have a different system of making, storing, and processing memories. Your dog greets you happily each day because in its memory you are the owner. However, a dog may not remember the little treat you gave it just minutes ago.  

This is because dogs don’t think and process info like humans. Dogs generally remember things by association, which is called associative memory. They associate certain people, places, and objects with particular emotions and memories.

For instance, a dog may get excited when the owner holds a leash in front of the dog. The association of a leash with walking has made a memory in the dog’s brain that reminds it of walk time.

What Are Associative And Episodic Memories?

As discussed earlier, associative memory is the process of stored information being linked or associated with a certain person, place, object, or action. 

Dogs use this kind of memory. For example, a dog may resist getting into a car out of fear of going to the pet clinic because of the associative memory of driving to a pet hospital.

On the other hand, episodic memory is the conscious recollection of happenings, moments, or emotions in past events. Humans have episodic memory because we remember past events. For example, something delightful like our anniversary or some tragic event like the loss of a loved one.

Generally, it is believed dogs can’t process past events like humans because they lack episodic memory and may not be completely self-aware. However, research is still ongoing and no one has proven anything regarding episodic memory in dogs for sure yet.

Do Dogs Remember Past Events?

Although dogs don’t seem to remember events like we do, new research suggests dogs do remember them, just not the way an organism with episodic memory would. Moreover, the self-awareness aspect of dogs is still under debate. 

A dog may remember past events vividly, however, traumatic events can have a lasting effect on a dog’s memory and mental health, triggering flashbacks. 

In an experiment, researchers taught a group of dogs the command, “Do it.” In the experiment, they saw their owners touching an umbrella. They were trained and told to do it. This resulted in the same action of touching the umbrella. Here you can learn more about this research.

In the second round, the researchers trained the dogs not to imitate the action but to sit down when they saw their owner performing an action. However, the researchers tricked the dogs by repeating the command, “Do it,” which prompted them to recall their earlier training, and they repeated the same action of touching the umbrella. 

This experiment tested a dog’s memory linked to training and the observation abilities of the dog.

Does A Sense Of Smell Help Dogs To Remember?

A dog’s strong sense of smell comes from millions of olfactory receptors that receive and transmit useful signals about scents to a dog’s brain. These signals get stored in a dog’s memory and olfaction of the same kind can evoke that memory. The use of a dog’s sense of olfaction can be seen in the case of search dogs that help in retrieving lost objects, people, narcotics, explosives, etc. 

This sense also helps a dog remember people and other pets by sniffing specific body odors.

A research experiment proved that a specific ‘vanilla’ odor used in some cans having rewards led dogs to find the rewards hidden around a room next time by just remembering the odor associated with treats. You can learn more about this research here.

Do Dogs Remember Their Owners?

A dog not only recognizes but remembers its owner. They know who their providers are and remember their body odor. A dog thinks of and misses its owner too. Lost pets are known to recognize their owner even after a long period of separation.

The association of love, protection, and companionship along with the memories formed through smells helps dogs remember their human owners for a long time.

How Good Is A Dog’s Short-Term Memory?

As discussed earlier, a dog’s short-term memory is weak. According to research, a dog’s short memory lasts only two minutes and then they are clueless. For instance, a dog may not remember the short-term happenings like a treat you just offered or the sofa it chewed a few minutes ago. 

Are Dogs Self-Aware?

The general view is dogs aren’t self-aware and can’t recognize themselves. However, ongoing research suggests dogs have some level of self-awareness. 

Dogs are aware of their body and adjust it to get to food and evade obstacles. They cannot spot themselves in the mirror and get confused though. However, they do recognize their own smell and recall past memories associated with it.

For instance, a dog remembers a loving relationship with its owner as well as traumatic events of abuse that happened in the past.

Conclusion: How Good Is A Dog’s Memory?

A dog is an intelligent animal and its companionship and bond with its owner suggest how good a dog’s memory is. Not only can they recognize their owners, they remember them for a long period of time. A dog’s memory works by a way of association and not episodically as humans’ memories do. A dog’s short-term memory is weak but their sense of smell helps them remember.

So, ever had any funny or surprising experiences with your dog’s memory? Tell us your stories in the comments below!

Shahzaib is a qualified veterinarian and professional writer. He is from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. He did his DVM from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. Being a Veterinarian, Shahzaib has technically sound knowledge of pet health, nutrition, breeding, and housing. He has more than two years of experience in small animal medicine and surgery. Currently, he is working as an Associate Veterinarian in a renowned pet hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan.