Can’t remember where you set down your coffee a moment ago? Maybe you should ask your dog.
Dogs can remember their owners’ actions, even when those actions are trivial, a new study says. Some canines can summon up what people were doing a full hour earlier, to the surprise of the study’s authors, who say the finding is more than a mere curiosity.
It was already clear that dogs “have emotions similar to ours (and) they have a memory system similar to ours,” says study co-author Claudia Fugazza of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. “Our study basically shows dogs can remember events pretty much like we do.”
That dogs could perform remarkable feats of memory didn’t completely shock Fugazza and her colleagues. They had already found that after dogs see their owners perform a simple action, such as touching an umbrella, the pets easily mimic that action, even 24 hours later.
But for that test, which Fugazza calls “Do As I Do,” the dogs knew their job was to remember and repeat their owners’ deeds. What could dogs remember, Fugazza wondered, if they didn’t know they were supposed to remember?
That’s no academic quibble. When the dogs were cued to remember their owners’ actions, they were relying on what’s known as semantic memory. Humans use it to learn lessons in school and to accumulate facts about the world, such as the capitals of all 50 states.
On the other hand, if the dogs were remembering without any expectations that the memory was useful, they would be relying on something close to episodic memory. That’s the memory of past experiences, such as what you ate for lunch yesterday. Previously thought to be the sole province of humans, episodic memory is closely linked to self-awareness.
To figure out whether dogs can form such memories, Fugazza and her colleagues devised a twist on the “Do As I Do” test. They enlisted human-canine pairs who had already learned the “Do As I Do” test and once again had the dogs witness their people perform a simple action, such as touching an umbrella. But instead of being asked to imitate that action, the dogs were trained to lie down. As a result, the dogs didn’t realize they would need to retain information about their owners’ actions, or so the scientists think.
But when the dogs were told “Lie down!” and then, unexpectedly, “Do it!” – the command to imitate their humans – they could still imitate the actions their people had performed, showing that they remembered an unremarkable past event. More than a third could do so after an hour, the researchers report in this week’s Current Biology.
Other animals have demonstrated episodic memory. But this is the first time that non-human animals have shown the ability to record complex events, the researchers say. Other scientists agree.
“The use of complex behaviors in this work is remarkable,” JonathonCQ Crystal of the University of Indiana, who was not involved in the research, says via email.
Remembering a past event requires mentally traveling back in time to retrieve that event, which is difficult to demonstrate in species that lack spoken language. But “this paper does that as well as can be done with animals,” says Thomas Zentall of the University of Kentucky.
Fugazza has three dogs, including “an 18-year-old border collie. Who knows what he remembers (from) 18 years of life?” she says, adding that her work shows “we should treat dogs in a way that implies that we know that they remember what we do to them.”