Do Dogs Have Memories? Study Suggests It Can Be Episodic, Just Like Humans
Considering the amount of odd and often humiliating scenarios your dog has witnessed over the years, it's probably for the best that they can't talk. But here's a question to keep you up at night: Do dogs have memories the way humans do? Our capacity for memory is one of the most important characterstics that makes humans unique in the animal kingdom; it's a complicated system that plays a huge role in cognition. Memory is comprised of several different components, but the one most people are familiar with is known as episodic memory — the long-term ability to recall specific events, even when they don't seem important at the time.
Humans possess this type of memory, but according to Science Daily, a recent study published in Current Biology looked at whether dogs are capable of it as well. To test this, researchers from the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group trained 17 dogs to imitate their owners using something called the "Do as I Do" method. The technique is fairly self-explanatory; dogs watch their owners perform an action, then they mimic the action on command. After being trained in this way, the dogs were all taught to lay down instead after watching a human action. This was intended to substitute the initial training, so the dogs no longer had a reason to expect the "Do as I Do" commands.
Finally, researchers surprised the dogs with the "Do it!" command one minute and one hour after training them to lay down instead. Both times, the dogs performed the action they were initially trained to do, although memories tended to deteriorate over time. According to researchers, this suggests that dogs are capable of more complex memory than previously assumed. "These findings show that dogs recall past events as complex as human actions even if they do not expect the memory test, providing evidence for episodic-like memory," they concluded in the paper.
So what makes this a big deal? As Newsweek points out, episodic memory is associated with a degree of self-awareness. Unlike semantic memory, which deals with things like facts and ideas, episodic memories are personal, which requires a sense of self. To remember things from your own perspective, you have to understand that you're an individual in the first place. Prior research has indicated that humans are far from the only animals to have self-awareness; elephants, dolphins, and magpies have all demonstrated the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror.
Although dogs haven't passed the traditional "mirror test" of self-awareness, some researchers believe they're more aware than many think. University of Colorado professor Marc Bekoff, for example, believes that the mirror test puts dogs at a disadvantage; it's based on visual recognition, but dogs rely on their sense of smell more than sight.
There's no consensus yet on whether dogs are self-aware, but it's clearly an avenue of research worth exploring. In the meantime, be grateful that your dog thinks you're the coolest person ever — they were there for all the Friday nights you spent marathoning Netflix, and they remember.
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