How dogs remember
How a dogs brain works
Although it is evident dogs have memory based on their ability to remember commands and tricks, most people do not fully understand how that memory works. Just as with humans, information that passes through the brain quickly becomes short-term memory whereas information that stays in the brain for several minutes becomes long-term memory. It is this reference that can be recalled when needed.
There is one primary difference in how a dog’s memory works compared to humans in that these animals do not have the ability to recall specific events. In learning how memory of a dog works, you will discover that there are actually four specific types of memory, each serving a very unique purpose.
Whereas humans can put memories in sequential order, dogs simply live for the “here and now”. In other words, when humans recall stored information, they have the ability to reference information for a specific time or event. In comparison, dogs cannot conceptualize between the past and future. Instead, a dog focuses on things occurring at the present time.
Natural Rhythms Memory
What makes a dog’s memory so fascinating is that even though they have no actual reference to the past, they can still remember certain things such as going to the park for a walk, swimming in the local pond, being trained with favorite snacks, and so on. This type of memory is actually natural rhythms that have a strong resemblance to normal memory.
To you as a pet owner, it appears as if your dog is able remember things when in reality, there is an internal clock that provides him with a reminder. As an example, if you take your dog on a walk every day at 5:00 pm, you can be sure that if you forget, the animal will remind you. This is not so much a memory but a built-in rhythm that appears very much like a memory.
Procedural or Associative Memory
When it comes to obedience training and tricks, your dog is not so much recalling specific sessions but rather connections associated with training that have been stored in the brain. As an example, if you have been working with your dog to “sit” and as part of the training routine you offer a favorite snack the brain creates a connection between the act of sitting and getting a treat.
Even after time passes, when you give the “sit” command, neurons within the brain will send a signal that reminds the dog that if he does as told he will receive something good to eat. It is not because of conscious memory that your dog follows through on the command in exchange for a treat but because of the way the brain has been wired associated with the training. Simply put, the behavior and reward have become routine.
For this type of memory, your dog can recall information pertaining to locations or arrangements. For instance, if you have been feeding your dog out of the same food and water dish for a long time but then you decide to use new dishes, the animal will take time to smell the dishes and in his mind, recognize something is different. In this case, how a dog’s memory works is by referencing information stored in the long-term memory.
As far as how a dog’s memory works, there are both similarities and differences in the way humans remember things. Keep in mind that a dog’s ability to learn is based on a type of rudimentary memory opposed to true understanding. Even so, dogs are incredibly intelligent animals. Therefore, as you spend more and more time in training, your dog will surprisingly remember more than expected.
Something else we wanted to point out is that memory for a dog is often very specific. For instance, scent is very powerful for dogs and because of this, these animals have the ability to lock into a memory or reference material connected with scent far easier than humans. This is why dogs are used by the military and law enforcement agencies to sniff out drugs, bombs, money, human corpses, and more.
Dogs also have a keen hearing ability, which again makes it easy for them to recall things associated with this sense. In fact, it has been proven that dogs can hear sounds inaudible to the human ear. This is the reason that dogs are also valuable when searching for survivors buried in buildings after collapse caused by an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado.
On a final note, along with recalling positive things, dogs also recall negative occurrences. If your dog was ever attacked by another dog, chances are he is nervous or even afraid being around canines, if your dog had to undergo surgery, every trip to the veterinarian’s office might be challenging, or if you adopted a dog from an abusive situation, raising your voice causes him to cower.
While associative or procedural memory is related to positive experiences, negative references often stay in the brain much longer. This is not to say that those “memories” cannot be calmed or even reversed, just that it will take longer to help your dog overcome a memory that makes him anxious.