Dogs form memories of experiences

Tests of mimicking actions suggest dogs have a form of episodic memory

experiment with dog and umbrella

SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME After watching a person do a trick, such as touching an umbrella, dogs can perform the same one, even when they weren’t expecting to be called to action. The results suggest dogs remember personal experiences.

Mirko Lui

Dogs don’t miss much. After watching a human do a trick, dogs remembered the tricks well enough to copy them perfectly a minute later, a new study finds. The results suggest that our furry friends possess some version of episodic memory, which allows them to recall personal experiences, and not just simple associations between, for instance, sitting and getting a treat.

Pet dogs watched a human do something — climb on a chair, look inside a bucket or touch an umbrella. Either a minute or an hour later, the dog was unexpectedly asked to copy the behavior with a “Do it!” command, an imitation that the dogs had already been trained to do. In many cases, dogs were able to obey these surprise commands, particularly after just a minute. Dogs didn’t perform as well when they had to wait an hour for the test, suggesting that the memories grew hazier with time. 

Like people, dogs seem to form memories about their experiences all the time, even when they don’t expect to have to use those memories later, study coauthor Claudia Fugazza of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and colleagues write November 23 in Current Biology.

After receiving a surprise pop quiz (“Do it!”), a dog successfully copies a person’s behavior a minute after watching it. That success indicates that the dog was forming memories, even when it wasn’t expecting to use them. Claudia Fugazza, Ákos Pogány, and Ádám Miklós/Current Biology 2016

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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