How Do Dogs Remember?
Most dog owners believe their dogs remember.
How well, how much, and for how long dogs remember may depend on the owner you speak with or the particular dog, but there’s a general consensus that most dogs can remember at least some things.
So how much can your dog remember? In part, it depends on what kind of memory you’re talking about.
Dogs have “procedural” memory. That’s how they learn commands. Their human says “sit,” their butt hits the floor, they get food. It’s almost an “if/then” situation in their thinking: “If I sit, then I get food.” As you train your dog, you likely will decrease the number of times he gets a treat until he no longer is rewarded.
No Sense of Time Passing
But dogs have no sense of time. So if he ever got food when he sat, he’ll sit again in case he gets food again, whether the last time he was rewarded was 10 minutes ago or 10 months ago.
The fact that dogs don’t understand time works for you when you’re training them. However, don’t punish your dog for something he did while you were at work: he won’t make the connection between what he did, and why you’re angry. Punishing your dog after the fact will only frustrate you and confuse and frighten your dog.
Many dogs also have spatial memory, like remembering where furniture is in a room. If you rearrange furniture or pile it in the middle of the room to clean the baseboards, your dog may come into the room with a quizzical look and start smelling everything. The room is different and he’s trying to figure out why.
Learning by Association
Dogs also learn by association. Do you regularly walk your dog? How does he react when he sees the leash? He probably runs back and forth to the door, tail wagging, waiting to go out for a fun outing. On the other hand, if the only time your dog is on a leash is when he goes to the vet, you may get a very different reaction from him when he sees the leash. He may flatten himself to the floor or try to slink out of the room.
If your dog has a negative reaction to something, try replacing the negative experience and association with a positive one. Do you only take your dog in the car when you go to the vet? Take him to the dog park, or to visit a pet store, or some other activity he enjoys. Soon he’ll associate the car ride with the positive experience, and will focus on that instead of the negative.
Learning by Scent
Dogs also have a very strong scent association. They remember a favorite person (or a feared person) by their scent. There are many stories of dogs recognizing family members or even former owners after years apart.
Your dog’s memory works more to keep him from danger and to give him the things that he wants than for any other reason. He lives for the moment. If you live in the moment with him as often as you can, you’ll have many wonderful memories to last you after your furry friend is no longer around.