Most dog-owners would give anything to know a true answer to the question: “How much does my dog really love me?” Coming in a close second to that one is: “How long is my dog’s memory? For example, does he actually remember having pooped indoors this afternoon?”
The jury’s still out on the first one, but we do have a pretty good idea about canine memory retention. Alas, the pooping incident was possibly all forgotten by the time you pulled him up about it because short-term memory in dogs is very….short…
Researchers have theorized that short-term memory for dogs is about five minutes maximum; cats remember much longer, up to 16 hours.
Long-term memory is a whole lot harder to quantify or determine. Dogs don’t appear to have the kind of recall-based memory that we do. This is why it’s pretty pointless to discipline your pet long after the pooping incident has occurred. Unless you catch him/her in the act, the dog doesn’t really understand why you’re so displeased all of a sudden.
Dog memory is best understood if we look upon it as primarily an associative one. A dog will remember certain people and certain places based on associations he has with those people and places.
For instance, when a dog-owner shuts down his computer at the end of the day, the dog is excited because he associates the sound of the computer shutting down with something pleasurable – like being taken for a walk. The associated action (computer shut-down) is the `sensation trigger’ – not remembering yesterday’s walk, or the one he experience the day before that. Recollection of those specific events – what we typically identify as memory – does not stick in the dog’s mind at all.
NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE ASSOCIATIONS
Associations can be a negative or a positive one. When a dog comes across a vacuum cleaner for the first time, for example, and the machine suddenly begins making this strange, humming noise, the dog takes fright. From there on, the fear – a negative association – gets imprinted in his psyche, though he doesn’t have a graphic recollection of the time when he first encountered the vacuum cleaner at all.
Thereafter, he always `associates’ something negative with the vacuum, and seems to `remember’ that he doesn’t like it. We mistakenly believe the dog recalls his first encounter with the machine. In actuality, the dog is only aware of the imprint (a negative one) that the machine has left on him. Outwardly, both seem the same, which gives rise to the confusion.
Positive imprints or associations work in exactly the same way. The animal does not recollect all the times he enjoyed playing with the blue ball in the park. But he gets excited at the sight of it anyway, because the ball is associated in his mind with a pleasurable, positive sensation. Again, we think the dog recalls how much fun he had chasing that blue ball last weekend. He doesn’t. He only experiences a frisson of joy and excitement because that feeling is now attached to the blue ball.
HOW DOES A DOG REMEMBER HIS TRAINING, THEN?
All attempts to understand thinking and memory in nonverbal animals are difficult in the absence of language communication, but according to experts, it is the associative memory that kicks in when dogs undergo training.
Trainers understand that well, and have developed methods that fully use cues, markers and other devices that aim to ingrain associative behavior into habits.
So even in the absence of human-like `episodic memory’ that is linked to self-awareness, dogs can recall training with what experts call `episodic-like memory’ – and construct their `memories’ via unique feelings and associations.