Breaking up is hard to do —but breaking up when a dog is involved is even harder. If you're the person who loses the dog in the split, it's like going through two breakups instead of one. If you're the person who keeps the dog, you get to live with a constant reminder of the love that once was (but also with a dog, which makes the reminder worth it). Yes, both of the humans in this hypothetical breakup are probably sad or mad or some combination of the two, but what about the real victim: the dog?
Seriously, how much do dogs remember the people who used to be such a big part of their lives after a relationship is over? The heroes over at Gizmodo dug deep. Here's what you need to know about what they found.
What kind of memory do dogs need to truly remember a person from their lives long-term?
Obviously, dogs have memories. They learn tricks. They can be potty-trained. They know exactly where the T-R-E-A-T-S are (and they know the word treats, thus the need to spell it out).
In order to truly remember a person in the long run, however, dogs would need episodic memory, as Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere a lecturer and the coordinator of the Companion Animal Cognition Center, Animal Behavior and Conservation Program at Hunter College explains. "Episodic memory refers to memories of autobiographical events—in other words, recalling personal experiences," she said to Gizmodo.
Okay, so do dogs have episodic memory?
If you've ever seen one of those inspirational videos of a dog being reunited with his soldier owner after a long separation, you're probably like "duh, they must." The official answer is...we don't know for sure.
"In a 2016 study, Claudia Fugazza and colleagues evaluated episodic-like memory in dogs," Byosiere says. "The results suggest that dogs can recall their owner's actions, even in instances in which they were not explicitly commanded to do so. These findings indicate that dogs may have episodic-like memory in which memories are linked to specific times and places."
Other experts, however, think the existing evidence does point to animals (including dogs) having the ability to remember your ex (or you, if you're the former love who lost puppy visitation rights in the split). Stefano Ghirlanda, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and guest professor at Stockholm University, whose research focuses on animal learning and memory, told Gizmodo that animals have great long-term memory.
"Many animals have excellent long-term memory," he sayid. "A long-term memory, as the name suggests, can remain intact without significant degradation for years."
Ghirlanda even points to "less intelligent" animals like pigeons, that are known to be able to remember "hundreds of images for many months."
Why are dogs able to remember our exes?
So, here's the thing: If you want a pet who isn't going to remember anyone you've dated, get a cat, because this ability likely comes down to sociability. Ghirlanda says that social animals, like dogs, horses, and even parrots, are more capable of remembering other beings—whether those beings are humans or animals—than less social creatures, like cats (he admits, however, that cats might remember us and just act like they DGAF, so there's that).
What will make an ex actually memorable to a dog?
The bigger issue than if dogs are capable of remembering a person, Ghirlanda says, is whether the memory is formed in the first place. In the case of an ended relationship, the main factor will be how positive and meaningful your dog's interactions with your ex were. Did your dog spend a lot of time with your ex? Was your ex nice to your dog? If so, then your dog will probably remember that person. Conversely, if you're the one who is now without dog, take comfort in the fact that if you were nice and around quite a bit, your ex's dog will remember you too.
"For the most part, animals form long-term memories of events and situations that they deem meaningful," Ghirlanda. "If a person forges a long term bond through daily, positive interactions, that person will likewise be remembered for many years. I am not positive that casual acquaintances will be remembered as well."
Of course, you don't have to be nice for a dog to remember you. Dogs also remember people who are especially mean to them, but in a different way, according to Ghirlanda. Instead of having that fond, greet-you-at-the-door-forever memory, the dog might just develop aggressive tendencies around things that even subconsciously remind it of the abuse.
"If a person is particularly mean to the animal, they might form right away a very strong aversive memory, and thereafter react with fear or aggression," Ghirlanda says.
Can you make your dog forget your ex?
At this point, you might be thinking, "I was really hoping the answer to this whole thing was, 'no, your dog will totally forget your ex because you're both better off without them.'" Maybe you want your dog to forget the person you used to share a big part of your life with. Is that within your control?
The answer is...eh? Not scientific or super helpful, we know, but here's the thing: Dogs can forget. But when it comes to training them specifically to do so, it's usually reserved for helping dogs who have experienced abuse and trauma re-socialize. So, if your ex was a seriously bad human and mistreated your dog, then yes, there are things you can (and should!) do to help your pup get past the trauma.
"Animal shelter staff and volunteers are familiar with the counterconditioning process in which they overcome a dog's negative experiences with people in the past by creating a new association: people equal treats/toys/good times," Rachel Yankelevitz, an assistant professor of psychology at Rollins College, whose research focuses on human and non-human decision making, impulsivity, risk taking, and animal behavior, explains. "For a dog with a lot of negative past experiences, this process is slow and deliberate, and the trainer minimizes threatening stimuli by introducing new things carefully. Dogs, like people, learn best when they're calm. In time, and with the trainer's skill, the past is less influential on the dog's behavior, and the dog learns that people are fun."
But what if your ex was nice to your dog and someone your dog liked (or even loved)? Well, that's less of an "actively helping your dog get over something" thing and more of a "be super nice to your dog and hope the memories gradually fade away" thing.
"For dogs with positive past experiences, these associations with their previous owner also fade over time as new sources of treats and cuddles arise," Yankelevitz says.
The bottom line: Your dog might never really forget your ex, and a lot of that memory's longevity depends on the connection the dog and the human-no-longer-in-your-life had.
Why are dogs able to remember our exes for years and years?
If a person spends enough time with a dog, they become a de facto member of the dog's "pack," and that bond can last a lifetime. But why? Why are dogs able to remember specific people after years apart and when the human in question looks vastly different than they did when dog knew them? It comes down to smell.
"Odor memories appear to be extremely robust and long-lasting," Ruth Colwill a professor, of psychology at Brown University who specializes in animal learning and behavior, explains. "With a nose and brain built to process olfactory stimuli, a dog is not likely to forget what scents mean, especially when they belong to members of their family and have strong emotional connections. Additionally, contextual cues are known to aid memory retrieval, which would facilitate the dog's ability to recognize the odor walking through the front door."
The moral: Unless you can figure out how to fundamentally change your ex's pheromones, your dog is probably always going to remember them.
Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Tufts University and founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic, agrees.
According to Dodman, videos and anecdotal evidence of dogs remembering owners after years apart proved that "dogs have incredibly long memories for people they're fond of. And with people they're fond of, they remember everything about them—every nuance, from appearance to smell. All their sense are acutely tuned to that person."
Is there anything that could change this and make my dog forget my ex?
Yes, but you really don't want it — no matter how bad the breakup was. Dogs are susceptible to a form of Alzheimer's, which takes the same toll on them that it takes on humans.
"In humans with Alzheimer's, there's a build-up in the brain of a protein called amyloid. (There's another protein involved, but amyloid is the main culprit.) The degree to which the brain is affected correlates precisely with the degree of psychomotor impairment in the person, and the same is true in dogs," Dodman explains. "One of the cardinal signs of Alzheimer's is disorientation, and disorientation involves not recognizing familiar people. So disease can cause it, and I imagine there are other neurological conditions that could as well."
So yeah, the memories are better.