In recent years, scientists have begun to study dogs’ ability to remember, and to try to ascertain just what types of memories dogs have. It’s generally accepted that, like humans, dogs have short-term memories and long-term memories. Their short-term, or “working” memory is woefully short—anywhere from 10 to 70 seconds depending on the study, and their long-term, or “associative” memory is indefinite. Dogs remember people for many years, as is clearly demonstrated by all the videos on social media of dogs’ ecstatic reunions with members of the armed forces after long tours of duty.
Dogs’ poor short-term memory can have a great impact on their daily lives, especially when their humans come home after a long day at work to find that Rover has chewed up a good shoe or a couch pillow. It may be tempting to punish Rover for his indiscretion, but unless you catch him in the act, he’ll have absolutely no idea why he’s being punished and may come to associate punishment with your arrival home from work. He may become confused and stressed-out, and learn to fear you. You don’t want that!
Long-term memory is “associative” or “imprint” memory, and is indefinite. This is where she “remembers” in which room of the house she is most likely to get a treat, or she “associates” your putting on a certain pair of shoes or a certain coat with going for a walk. Scientists suspect that dogs can form long-term memories about a variety of experiences, but those with highly positive or highly negative connotations stick out the most.
“Important events, such as those related to food and survival, and events that have an emotional impact are more likely to be stored in the long-term memory,” says Claudia Fugazza, department of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
Also of great importance to the formation of long-term memories is the time of life that the experiences and impressions occur. Puppies are most impressionable between 3 and 12 weeks of age. “Puppies and kittens both have periods early in their lives where they learn rapidly about many things in their world. The memories that are formed during this period influence how they behave for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Kersti Seksel, a registered veterinary specialist of behavioral medicine at Sydney Animal Behaviour Service in Australia. “So, it’s extra important to expose them to the socialization and proper training and conditioning that they need during this time.”
It’s possible to help a dog convert a negative long-term memory into a positive one, one veterinarian says. If we respond to our dog’s stress at the vet clinic by becoming anxious ourselves, “then the memory of the building, the smell, and the people in that building will forever be scary.” So this vet encourages her clients to bring dogs to the clinic periodically for “happy visits,” where the dog gets a treat or some love, or just comes in and leaves. She has seen the demeanor and behavior of dogs do a complete turnaround.
What’s most important to remember about our dogs and their memories is, they do not remember the way humans do. They probably don’t remember the day you brought them home or the day you rescued them from the shelter. Their only permanent recollection of the shelter may be an anxiety around cages. Their short-term or “working” memory is inadequate to the task of remembering that they tore into the garbage while you were at work, so it makes absolutely no sense to yell at them or otherwise punish them for it. With a short-term memory of only 70 seconds, you really do have to catch them in the act. It is clear, however, that dogs remember YOU, that they love you, and that they look to you for guidance, for safety and security, and for that love that only you can give.