Do dogs have memories? Do they remember things like humans do? Does your dog remember the moment when you first bought it home? Or the time you yelled at the dog for soiling the carpet?
For humans, it is experiences that shape their lives. The positive and negative experiences you remember affect your behavior and choices. For example, you might shy away from spicy food if you had a bad experience trying them as a kid.
That may make you wonder, is the same for dogs? How long is a dog’s memory? Does it remember bad experiences? And do they affect its behavior? Let us get some answers.
- What Are The Types of Dog Memories?
- How Long is a Dog’s Memory?
- How Do Dogs Form Memories?
- Do Dogs Remember People?
- Do Dogs Remember Bad Experiences?
- What Are Signs Your Dog Remembers Bad Experiences?
- What to Do When a Dog You Adopt Has Bad Experiences?
- What Role Does Dog Memory Play in Training?
- How Can You Help Your Dog Form Happy Memories?
What Are The Types of Dog Memories?
Dogs have memories. But, to what extent do they remember things? The research is limited on this memory subject. We know that pets can be trained to obey commands. They tend to remember their human parents from a crowd of people. And they can always identify their favorite chew toy.
Here are different memory types a dog possesses.
1. Short Term Memory
Another name for this memory type is working memory. It helps you remember information for a short period. For example, when someone gives you their cell digits, you may remember them only for a few minutes before it fades away. It is the memory you are thinking about right now and may last for a few minutes.
In dogs, the short-term memory is, well, pretty short. On average, their short-term memory may last for a couple of minutes.
2. Associative Memory
This memory type helps dogs remember the relationship between two things. For example, if you put on your shoes and pick your bag up, it means you are off to work. If you pick up the dog leash, it means it is time for a walk.
These associations could be both good and bad. Unfortunately, dogs have a history of being abused, mistreated, and neglected. If the dog has been ill-treated using its leash in the past, it may recoil when you pick it up.
3. Long Term Memory
According to Dr. Jenna Sansolo of Ardsley Veterinary Associates, dogs have been shown to have long-term memory in studies and in real life. For example, when you go on a vacation, your dog does not forget you. In fact, you will find it jumping with joy and greeting you once you are back.
Similarly, a dog may remember bad things that might have happened to it. For example, it could be the reason why they are scared of certain noises or particular objects like cars or escalators.
How Long is a Dog’s Memory?
Humans can remember episodes from the past. You can recall specific events and remember details around the same. You can do so because humans have episodic memory. Until recently, scientists thought that only humans could have episodic memory.
A study by the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group found that the dogs could imitate the action of their owners for up to one hour and more. Their accuracy, though, faded over time.
The study was conducted using 17 dogs, and they could recall the action for an hour or so. So, it may seem like the results were not that great. But, it is an incredibly important finding because dogs showed the capacity for episodic memory, something that was considered a pure human-only ability.
According to Dr. Veronica Cruz Balser, a vet at the Metropolitan Veterinary Center, it can be tricky to pinpoint how far dogs can recall. The longevity of the memory depends on the impact the event has had on the pet. The emotions the dog felt, the reward or punishment it received.
The stronger the emotions, the longer the dog will retain the memory.
How Do Dogs Form Memories?
According to experts, when we talk about long-term memories, it’s the extremely positive and negative experiences that trigger the formation of memories.
Dogs need to eat food, drink water, and know how to protect themselves. All these events have a strong emotional quotient associated with them. For dogs, it is a matter of survival. So, this information may be saved as a part of their long-term memory.
These memories can impact the behavior of the dog later in life. You may have heard about the early socialization period dogs have. When the puppies are young, exposing them to different experiences is important. The positive association will help them form healthy habits in the future.
Similarly, if the puppy has been exposed to negative experiences early on in life, it will impact its behavior. For example, if the puppy was not fed properly or was mistreated, as it grows, it may fiercely guard its resources or may not be too excited about meeting new people.
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Do Dogs Remember People?
Dogs can remember people. The evidence lies in the fact that dogs rush to greet you at the door when you have been away for some time. It could be a few hours, a few weeks, or even months.
There have been cases where dogs have been separated from their owner for years, but the dog still recognizes their human parents.
Some dog breeds are fiercely loyal and protective. They would not be able to develop this trait or take action if they did not recognize and remember their human family. Dogs do use sight and smell to recognize you in a crowd. But it is the emotional bond you have with them that helps form memories.
Again, the experiences you share with the pet are important. For example, if the previous owners were not good to the dog, it might develop fear or anxiety about certain objects or events. Below, we will see how you can tackle such emotions and help the dog overcome them.
Do Dogs Remember Bad Experiences?
Yes, dogs do remember bad experiences. But, the way they remember it may be different from what humans remember. For example, if you have a bad experience, you might remember the details of the event, how it made you feel, the people involved, and where and how it happened. You can search for the memory and almost be transported back in time.
With dogs, though, the bad experiences will result in behavioral changes. For example, if the dog was forcibly kept inside a crate for longer periods without proper food and water, the crate will be a symbol of distress. The dog now associates negative emotions with the crate. So, in the future, if you try to crate train the dog, the process will be an uphill battle.
We can consider another example from Dr. Balser. Her dog, Tony, was near a campfire when someone poured the lighter fluid into the flame. The resulting fire from the action was too big a surprise for the dog to handle. The whole experience was frightening for the dog. And now Tony goes nowhere near campfires.
So, the dog will not remember what day it was, what it was doing before, or who poured the lighter fluid, but it will remember the consequence. And the consequence will keep it away from putting itself in a similar situation again.
What Are Signs Your Dog Remembers Bad Experiences?
Now that you know how long is a dog’s memory let us look at signs a dog with bad experiences might show.
If a dog has gone through emotional abuse, being neglected, abandoned, or over-pressurized, it is likely to show the below signs:
- Cowering, shaking, or whimpering
- Running and hiding in its safe spot
- Attention seeking behavior
- Resource guarding
- Being fearful, stressed, or anxious
- Aggressive behavior
- Refusal to meet new people or try new experiences
- Persistent barking
A dog may not indulge in undesirable behavior just because it feels so. If your dog is barking, showing fear, or cowering, you need to find out the trigger behind these emotions.
What to Do When a Dog You Adopt Has Bad Experiences?
Adopting a dog is a huge responsibility. You must understand that making the dog feel safe and comfortable, training it, and making it a part of your family will be challenging tasks.
Please be patient with the new pet. In the absence of training, its behavior will rely on past experiences. And it will take time to overcome the negative experiences of the past and adopt new habits.
A good way to do so is by forming routines. Let the dog know you will feed it enough food and water. Stick to meal times. Take the dog out for a walk at the same time daily. Reinforce these routines over time. When the dog sees that it gets enough food same time every day, it will slowly stop overeating.
Make the home a safe environment for the dog. Let it have a corner of its own that can be its safe place. Keep its bedding area clean.
Identify what your dog is scared of. For example, if it is meeting new people, you first need to remove the trigger from its immediate environment.
For example, if new people scare your dog, having a house party may not be the best option. Instead, you can try introducing one of your friends. Once the dog is comfortable, you can slowly start introducing more people. Thrusting an already scared dog into a room full of people does not help the situation.
What Role Does Dog Memory Play in Training?
It is the associative memory that comes into play during training. For dogs, it is the result or consequence that follows when they do a specific behavior that helps register the training into memory.
For example, using treats is a popular form of dog training. It could be teaching a dog its name or obedience commands like sit, stand or stay. When you command the dog to sit, and it sits, you give the dog a small piece of treat. So now, the dog associates the reward with obeying the command.
Similarly, if the dog does not get a treat or your attention for doing an undesirable behavior, it will learn that behavior is not appreciated.
The action and consequence should be in quick succession to register in the dog’s mind. For example, your dog has had a field day chewing at shoes from the cabinet while you were away at work. Shouting at it after you come back from work hours later will be of no help.
We understand that you might be angry and disappointed and want to discipline the dog. But the dog will never know what you are disciplining it for. So, the next time you catch the dog going for your shoes, stop it right in its track to dissuade the behavior.
How Can You Help Your Dog Form Happy Memories?
Positive associations, routines, consistency, patience, and a little love are different factors you need to focus on. These are factors that will help your dog form happy memories.
If your dog shows signs of extreme bad experiences, seek help from professionals. There are behavioral training experts who can help with the learning process.
Your dog will continue to learn throughout its lifetime. It may have gone through bad experiences early on, but you can turn them into positive experiences with patience and care. In addition, your behavior and how you respond to the pet can significantly impact the dog’s memories.
You create an environment where the dog is set to win. Give the pet some proper food and plenty of exercises. Spend time with the pet, play with it and give it attention. When the dog sees it is living in a safe environment, where its needs are met and its behavior is rewarded, it will grow in confidence.
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How long is a dog’s memory? If we are talking about short-term memory, it lasts only for a couple of minutes for dogs. In the case of long-term memory, the dog may remember an experience for a lifetime, depending on the emotions associated with it.
The stronger the emotions, the more likely it is that the pet will remember the experience. Now, this can be both good and bad. So to answer the question, do dogs remember bad experiences? Yes, they do.
Such dogs will show signs like shivering, whimpering, excessive barking, and other attention-seeking behavior. It would help if you were patient with dogs that have gone through bad experiences. Focus on creating a safe environment for the pet, providing good food, exercise, attention, and lots of belly rubs.
If your dog has extreme behavior issues, do not hesitate to seek professional help from behavioral experts.
Heather Abraham is an owner of two dogs, one cat, a leopard gecko, and a parrot (who her dad still cannot teach bad words to), and an avid blogger. From the time she was a young girl, she always felt a connection with pets. She brings her love of every type of pet to you, with information on animal nutrition, medication, toys, beds, and everything else in between. Along with newly-on-board veterinarian DVM editor Elena, she puts pups first while offering other various fun tidbits along the way.