New Discovery In How Dogs Remember Will Make You Feel Even Closer To Your Pet
What's your favorite memory with your dog?
Maybe it's the day you ran around in the rain, splashing through puddles like something out of a dog-human romantic comedy. Maybe it's the day he lay on the couch with you for eight hours straight because you had a bad cold and didn't feel like doing anything. Whatever it is, there's a decent chance your dog remembers it too.
New research published in Current Biology suggests that dogs have episodic memories — memories of specific days and events that stick out. We've known for a long time that dogs have great semantic memory (the ability to remember facts or tasks learned by repetition), but this development makes them more human than ever.
According to Scientific American, the research cited in Current Biology took place in Budapest, Hungary with a group of 17 volunteer dogs. Researchers needed a way to differentiate between semantic memory and episodic memory, so they went to the root of what helps us form episodic memories: Surprise.
This applies to humans too. The days and moments we remember are the ones that are out of the ordinary. It's the reason you can't remember exactly what you were doing three Wednesdays ago — unless three Wednesdays ago happened to be the day you got into a fender bender on the way to work or found a $100 bill on the sidewalk. Unexpected moments are what help us form episodic memories. The same, it turns out, might be true for dogs.
Researchers began by teaching the dogs in the study a series of tricks, a process that tapped into their semantic memory. The dogs were trained to mimic a simple action performed by the researches (like touching an umbrella or looking into a bucket) on the command "do it." The dogs all learned the trick and were able to perform it after a delay. To test their episodic memory, the research established a different expectation. After their owners performed a series of actions, the dogs were told to lie down.
The dogs were trained with the lie down command until they started to associate the owners' actions with that command. In other words, when they saw their owner begin the task, they were already ready to lie down, even before the command was issued. To test episodic memory, the researchers looked for signs of surprise when the lie down command wasn't issued.
When the owners switched things up and issued the "do it" command instead, the dogs reacted exactly like a surprised human would—by spending longer taking in and processing the command before reacting. But most did react appropriately. The researchers then took a longer break and retested the dogs again after about an hour. In the second test, fewer dogs remembered what "do it" meant, which makes sense if it's an episodic memory since, as anyone who's forgotten something knows, not every episodic memory makes it to longterm memory.