Understanding Canine Memory: How Dogs Remember and Associate Triggers
As dog owners, it’s safe to say we love our pups. Fond memories and favorite moments last long after our pooches do, and it’s easy to think that our pups’ memories work the same way. They seem to remember cues and commands, places around the house and neighborhood, and familiar people. But do they really remember the same way as humans?
The short answer is no. Humans possess episodic memory, or the ability to remember specific events and moments. It’s how we can recall instances throughout our lives and reflect on them with great detail. Dogs and other animals, however, don’t spend much (or any) time in the past – while recent evidence suggests pups may have some ability to remember past events, this episodic recall is very limited. Instead, they have associative memory, where people, places, and experiences, good and bad, become associated with certain triggers.
Think about something as simple as a pair of shoes. Over time, our pups may notice that their human puts on certain shoes whenever it’s time to go for a walk. They begin to associate ‘shoes’ with ‘walk’ and will get excited whenever their human puts on that specific pair of shoes, regardless of whether it’s walk time or not. The same is true of negative associations. Some dogs associate cars with trauma, for example, leading to a lingering anxiety around car rides regardless of whether the destination is the vet’s office or their favorite park.
Fortunately for us humans, these triggers can change for our canine companions – that’s a big part of dog training! While negative associations take longer to shift, conditional training and repetition help create more positive relationships for our pups over time. Like the car rides: start small, sitting with your pup in the car for a few minutes at a time with the engine turned off; use stress-free activities like feeding, chewing on a favorite bone, or brushing (if this is relaxing for your pup) to build up positive associations with the car. Once the car itself is no longer a source of stress, progress to sitting in the vehicle with the ignition on, then to short trips, then to trips to an enjoyable destination. Over time, you can introduce longer distances and unfamiliar places.
Our pups love and remember us – just differently than how we love and remember them. They may not remember the day they arrived in our lives the way we humans do, but they live fully in the present, where their positive associations with their humans means they are excited when we return home after the workday or put on that pair of shoes to take them for a walk. With training, we can help shift negative associations to positive ones – and live a happier life together with our dogs!
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