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As a new pet parent, it's difficult to imagine life before your amazing furry friend. But do you ever wonder if your pup feels the same way about life with you? Do dogs remember their owners from past homes? Do dogs have memories, even?
There's still research to be done on just how much dogs remember, but here's a look at what's known today.
Do Dogs Have Memories?
It's proven that dogs have memories, but researchers don't quite know the specifics yet, including to what extent dogs remember things.
"There are many stories about the memory of dogs, but only a few experiments have been done," said Ádám Miklósi, head of the ethology department at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, in an article for Dog Fancy.
The good news is that studies about dogs' memories are underway, including at the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, where researchers are looking at the following questions: "What cognitive strategies do dogs use when navigating or remembering events? Do all dogs navigate and remember things in a similar way? Are there systematic breed differences?" Any of these questions could lead to compelling discoveries.
Dog Memory Types
With a lack of empirical evidence regarding how a dog's brain "remembers" things, when faced with a question like "Do dogs remember their owners?" a good follow-up question is, "How do we even know?" Luckily, dogs are great test subjects (Sit? Sure! Fetch? You bet!), which allows experts to extrapolate information based on a dog's behavioral patterns.
We know that dogs can be smart, but not enough research has been done to determine whether or not memory capacity differs from one dog breed to another. Generally speaking, dogs exhibit varied types of memory cognition, including the following.
Dogs have a very short short-term memory. "Dogs forget an event within two minutes," reported National Geographic, citing a 2014 study performed on various animals from rats to bees. Other animals have long-term memories, such as dolphins, but dogs don't seem to have a long-term memory that lasts much beyond those two minutes.
Associative and Episodic Memory
Despite their memory span shortcomings, dogs demonstrate strength in other types of memory, including associative and episodic memory.
Associative memory is the brain's way of creating a relationship between two things. It can be difficult to get a cat into their pet carrier, for example, because they associate the carrier with going to the veterinarian's office. A dog sees their leash and knows it's time for a walk.
Episodic memory is the remembrance of something that has happened to you personally and is linked to self-awareness.
Until recently, it was thought that only humans and a few animals had episodic memories. Some research suggested that dogs sort of have that ability, but a groundbreaking study in Current Biology provided strong "evidence for episodic-like memory" in dogs. The team trained dogs to the point that instead of saying "lie down," the researcher would say "do it" and the dog would obey.
Anecdotally, training dogs for advanced cognition may not be too far off. Renowned psychologist and dog author Dr. Stanley Coren wrote for Psychology Today that he once interviewed a man who, having lost his short-term memory due to a brain injury as a child, relied on a "memory assistance dog" to help with episodic "new memories" such as where he parked his car. Pretty exciting stuff.
Do Dogs Remember Their Owners?
These advancements support the idea that adopted dogs may remember their previous owners, but how they remember them is still uncertain. A dog who lived in unhappy circumstances, for example, may associate negative emotions or anxious behavior with certain objects or locations. And we definitely know that dogs miss their humans when people leave the house — just look at how happy they get when you walk through that front door!
But this doesn't mean your new pup is pining for another family. As long as you provide a loving and nurturing environment, your new dog will be happy to focus on their present and enjoy being in their forever home.
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), a STEAM educator, and a devoted pet parent. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien