How long is a dog’s memory? Good question. Dogs have memories, of course, they do, how else would they know where you keep their leash, their favorite places on a walk, people they know, training commands, they remember it all. But is it memory as we humans recognize it?
Perhaps the mistake we make is trying to see a dog’s memory in the same way as a human’s memory. It might not even be a memory at all, at least not in the way we think about memory.
Do Dogs Even Have Memory?
A dog can tell the difference between a pleasant experience and an unpleasant one. You only have to think about your last trip to the vet. I can’t speak for your dog, but my dog knows as soon as we pull up in the car where we are. His entire demeanor changes, he’s terrified. He remembers something that happened here he didn’t like very much.
What Is That If Not Memory?
Take dog training as another example. There’s a reason positive reinforcement training works so much better for every dog than harsh discipline. Yes, a dog disciplined by fear will do as he’s told until the day comes when he doesn’t and turns on his owner. Deep down inside the dog is a deep resentment, even maybe, hatred. Fear will only get a dog owner so far.
But train a dog positively, and you’re rewarded with a dog that wants to please. The relationship becomes one of love and trust. Is that associative memory?
Dogs remember bad things that happen to them. Look at rescue dogs. They can be fearful of certain things, even some sounds scare them because the dog associates the sound with some horrible experience, and it still terrifies him.
Given time, patience, and love from his new owner, the dog will ‘forget’ his previous treatment.
A Dog’s Memory Span
Humans pride themselves on being highly intelligent, and mostly they are. But talk about short-term memory, and that’s another story.
On average, a human’s short-term memory is 15-30 seconds and a maximum capacity of 7 items, a dog’s short-term memory is around 2 minutes, but a cat can remember for up to 16 hours (in a where to find food test).
This why unless you catch the dog in the act of misbehaving, there’s no point in yelling at him 3 hours later. He doesn’t have a clue why you’re yelling, probably thinks you’re a crazy person.
If you leave your dog for too long, or he has separation anxiety, they could urinate inside the house. When you yell at him when you come home he’s far more likely to think you don’t like urine, not that he emptied his bladder in the house.
Dogs And Associative Memory
Dogs remember by association. For example, when you take your dog for a walk, when you step out of your drive he will most likely turn to walk in a certain direction.
There will be things on the walk, he remembers. He might stop and sniff at the same spots. If you’re walking in the right direction but not quite close enough to where he wants to be, he’ll pull you over to the exact spot. Test this yourself. Watch where he wants to go, make a mental note of it.
Next time you walk him, go close to the spots he likes but not close enough for him to get sniffing, he will pull you to those same spots every time.
He will identify words you say and the tone of voice you use.
A Dog’s Memory Formation
Dogs form associative memories because of repetitive behavior. Like the dog walks we talked about or the visit to the vets. But how is a memory formed in a dog’s mind from a single incident?
For a dog to remember something like this, the incident that triggers it has to be something traumatic. For example, dogs rarely know the danger of road vehicles. But a dog hit by a car that survived will remember that incident for the rest of his life and will become very cautious crossing a road.
It seems common sense when you think about that. Yes, a car accident would make us more cautious next time crossing the road. But it’s a memory formed that makes us cautious, it’s the same with a dog.
In this way, you can influence your dog’s memory. You want your dog to have loads of wonderful memories, so give him as many happy associations as you can.
Can Dogs Tell The Time?
Once you develop a relationship with a dog, it’s difficult to believe they cannot tell the time. They know how many times each day you feed them, not only that, but they know when it’s time for their meal.
They wake at the same time every day and come to tell you the time to get up. Better than any alarm clock because they are so persistent.
A dog cannot ‘tell time’ it can’t look at a clock and know it’s 7 pm. But they have a kind of biological clock, that is very accurate.
Dogs appear to be well ‘organized’ with time. When a regular occurrence doesn’t happen, they become agitated, things are out of routine, or not what they expect. Dogs also learn time from habit and, as we have said, association.
Do Dogs Recognize Patterns Of Time?
How does a dog know when it’s time for you to come home? Why do they sit by the window or door waiting for you? Dogs learn patterns of time, they become part of their waking lives. We say dogs learn from habits, which is true, the fact you come home every day at the same time is a habit, and a dog will recognize it.
The Last Word
Dogs can remember pleasant events in their lives, but it’s very doubtful they can replay nice thoughts in their minds the way humans can.
But through association, they identify fun and interesting events. Hence the reason they get so excited in anticipation of something good happening.
As a kid, I grew up with lots of dogs in my family. My earliest recollection was a Labrador mix called Bruce, and I must have only been about three years old.
When I was around seven, we began to move around frequently, so having a dog was very difficult until we adopted a baby long-haired Dachshund. I was thirteen by then. We called him Pepe; I have no idea why; all I can say was it wasn’t my idea. But he did seem to grow into the name.
I’ve personally been the parent of a Great Dane called Lady, a French Bulldog we called Spike. I have also had the privilege of being the parent of one of the gorgeous cats on the planet; a British Blue Shorthair called Ellie. Right now, we have an amazing little Havanese in our family; we call Biscuit; he’s four years old.
I pride myself on being the very best dog-parent I can be. I refuse to bring a dog into my life without investing as much time as possible to understand that dog’s particular needs. Every dog I have parented has been an experience, and they are all different with incredible personalities.
To understand dogs as much as possible, I have taken several courses regarding dog care and training. The most recent course is The Truth About Cats And Dogs, offered by The University Of Edinburgh.
My dogs and cat have been the funniest and most unique animals I have ever been privileged to spend my life with. They can teach human beings so much if we take the time to watch and listen to them. My ambition is to share what I have learned with other passionate dog lovers.
I am obsessed with writing and researching everything I can about dog health, care, psychology, and finding the best dog products available to help ensure a dog’s life is as happy and contented as possible.