Your dog has a much better memory than you think it does

24 Nov 2016

A rather annoyed Belgian Griffon. Image: snikst/Shutterstock

New research into the mental capacity of dogs has uncovered new evidence, which shows they are generally much better at remembering past events than we once thought.

Contained within the human mind is the ability to recall ‘episodic memory’ that lets our brains instantly run through a vast catalogue of memories to find one particular moment, regardless of whether it had any importance to us or not.

A new study conducted by a research team based in Hungary has found that us humans are not the only ones able to recall such memories – our canine companions can, too.

Until now, any established evidence that showed dogs – or any animals for that matter – have the ability to recall episodic memory has been hard to come by.

This is down to the obvious inability to communicate verbally with animals about recalling memories, but the team from the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest has managed to find a way.

Using a method called ‘Do as I do’, trained dogs can watch a person perform an action and then do the action themselves.

For example, if their owner jumps in the air and then gives the “Do it!” command, the dog would also jump in the air.

As this alone doesn’t provide evidence of episodic memory, the researchers trained 17 dogs to imitate human actions using the same method, followed by another round of training whereby dogs were trained to lie down after watching any human action.

Once they were trained to lie down, the surprise shouting of “Do it!” would result in the dogs recalling what they had seen the person do, even though they had no particular reason to think they’d need to remember.

Advanced memory not unique to humans

The tests were then repeated one minute and one hour after the initial training to see if the memory would stay, and despite it appearing to stick, the memory was found to deteriorate soon after this amount of time.

“From a broad evolutionary perspective, this implies that episodic-like memory is not unique and did not evolve only in primates, but is a more widespread skill in the animal kingdom,” said Claudia Fugazza of the research group.

“We suggest that dogs may provide a good model to study the complexity of episodic-like memory in a natural setting, especially because this species has the evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups.”

The team’s research has now been published in Current Biology.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic