There’s nothing like thinking back over your favorite memories of your dog to bring a smile to your face. But have you ever stopped to ponder how dog memory works? Do dogs have memories like people do? And, if so, how long is a dog’s memory?
It’s only natural to wonder if dogs can reminisce about past events. And though research on dog memory is limited, there’s growing evidence showing that dogs can learn and recall words, commands, people, and places.
We talked to some leading experts to learn more about dog memory and how it works.
Do Dogs Have Memories?
So, what do veterinarians have to say on the topic? We asked veterinarian and anthrozoologist Patrick Flynn, DVM, MS, CCFP, who serves as President of the Human Animal Bond Association, which means he pays a lot of attention to the connection between people and their pets.
“I think it’s safe to say dogs do remember specific things,” Dr. Flynn says. “There are many examples — from the dog who knows right where he buried toys and bones in the backyard, to the dog whose person has been deployed for many months. The recognition upon their return is instant and deep.”
It’s important to note that some dog memories can be quite painful. “Physically abused dogs certainly remember that experience, “ adds Dr. Flynn. “It can take quite an effort to get them past that and to trust again.”
Can Smells Trigger Dog Memories?
With some dog breeds having 100 million scent receptors (way more than the measly five million or so that humans possess), dog noses can capture a lot of information. In many ways, scent is akin to language for dogs.
While Dr. Flynn is unaware of any studies that track a dog’s scent memory, he says the similarities between dog and human brain wiring indicate there could be a connection.
“I would bet they are like us, in that — even many years later — a smell can quickly surface a detailed memory,” Dr. Flynn says.
And because dogs have such an impressive sense of smell, a big part of their memory could also be scent-based.
Do Dogs Remember Their Siblings or Parents?
Could that advanced sense of smell help dogs remember their parents or littermates, even after a long period apart?
We’ve all heard stories about long-separated siblings reuniting by chance after an encounter in a dog park. But is there any truth to these tales?
Dr. Flynn reports this isn’t an extensively evaluated area. He does say, “In my experience as a veterinarian, I’ve seen both recognition and no response at all.” So it may depend on the dog and the situation.
“I’d hypothesize that recognition is likely a function of the amount of time spent together as young pups,” Dr. Flynn suggests. “If they all mature together, I would think there would be an increased likelihood of long-term recognition.”
Do Dogs Remember People?
So back to our original question: Do dogs possess memories of us like we do of them? According to some research, the answer is a (qualified) yes.
In general, dogs display relatively poor short-term memory. According to National Geographic, one 2014 study found that dogs tend to forget arbitrary events within two minutes. However, when it comes to events or stimuli that affect their survival — such as where to find food or the scent of a predator — dogs can form long-term associative memories.
So that means when your dog seems super happy to see you at the end of the day, it’s not your imagination. Your dog does remember you! But it has more to do with the food, shelter, and safety your dog associates with you than any particular heart-warming memory.
That’s OK, though. You have enough of those memories for both of you.
What About Cognition Skills? Can Dogs Remember Words?
Many dog parents have pets who can recognize words like “walk,” “treat,” and “ride.” (Even when you try to get sneaky and spell them out!) But if you’ve ever wondered just how much of your conversation your dog can comprehend, the answer might surprise you.
Many dogs can learn and remember more language than you might think. Furthermore, research shows that at least some dogs can understand full sentences!
According to an article in Popular Science, one Hungarian study found many family dogs can have the same understanding of language as an 8-month-old infant. The study ran MRI tests on dog subjects and found that dog brains and human brains reacted the same way to structured language, like complete sentences.
Of course, some dogs are more capable than others. Chase the Border Collie learned the names of 1022 different toys and appeared on the PBS science show NOVA with Neil deGrasse Tyson to display his toy and name-matching prowess.
When it comes to working dogs, there seems to be no end to their recall. From herding to bomb-detecting, these highly trained dogs are trained to remember much more than your average house pet. Psychology Today even reports that service dogs in support of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia can respond to a cue to lead the patient home if they become lost or disoriented.
How To Improve Your Dog’s Memory
Whether you’re working with a puppy learning new skills or an adult dog, the key to boosting your dog’s memory and recall are patience and repetition.
Remember, dogs develop longer-term memories due to association. So be sure to lavish them with attention, play with them, and create positive associations with whatever behavior you are trying to reinforce.
Mental stimulation can also help your pup stay sharp. If your dog spends a lot of time alone, consider a puzzle to help keep their brain engaged.
Finally, as your dog ages, you may notice some memory changes. For example, your dog may seem confused or anxious. They may forget things, such as which way the door opens or where their bed is.
These could be normal signs of aging or a warning sign of a serious condition, like Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. Whatever the cause, always remain patient and supportive. And be sure to talk with your veterinarian about your dog’s memory lapses to come up with a plan or treatment that is best for your pet.