Does the dog have memory? Can he remember past events? What is the state of current scientific knowledge in this area? We take stock…
Does the dog have memory?
According to the dictionary, memory is defined as “a biological and psychic activity which makes it possible to retain experiences previously lived” or even as a “biological and psychic activity which makes it possible to store, preserve and restore information. “
It is therefore essential in all the learning, recognition (individuals and situations) and socialization processes … of which we know the dog capable.
In light of this observation, it can therefore be said with certainty that the dog has memory. But what kind of memory exactly? And is it comparable to that of humans?
The memories of the dog
In reality, there is not a single memory but different types of memory in dogs that can be categorized as follows:
Sensory or perceptual memory is the memory linked to the five senses . It very quickly and unconsciously identifies and stores the information provided by sight , touch, hearing, taste and smell . Relevant information is then directed to short-term memory.
As the name suggests, short-term memory is the memory of the present. It is used to retain information very briefly , for a few seconds to a few minutes, after it has “entered” into the brain. In dogs, this short-term memory was estimated at 2 minutes by a Swedish study published in 2014 in the scientific journal B ehavioral Processes (but the results of this study are, however, questionable).
This type of memory is constantly requested by the dog. It allows him, for example, to remember that a cat, which he observes in the park opposite his home, has hidden behind a tree. Short-term memory then implies that the dog has not forgotten the existence of the cat even though he no longer sees it and, also, that the dog is capable of representing mentally an “invisible object” (in l occurrence in our example, a cat masked by the tree trunk).
Short term memory is the first step in longer term memory.
Long-term memory is a memory used to store information for days, months or even years.
We usually break it down into:
- implicit memory which itself in particular includes procedural memory and conventional conditioning,
- explicit memory which can be broken down into episodic memory and semantic memory.
Implicit memory is a type of long-term memory that allows you to acquire automatisms unconsciously, without even having to think about it or make any particular mental effort.
It thus includes the procedural memory which is the memory of know-how and motor skills. It is this type of memory that allows the acquisition and use of motor skills in athletic dogs and in working dogs to perform the specific tasks for which they are trained. It is also the memory which intervenes for the use of “natural” abilities of the animal, such as walking or running.
The classical conditioning learning methods , as described in the Pavlov dog experiment , also call upon the dog’s implicit memory.
Memory is long-term memory that requires a certain degree of conscious thought. Explicit memory is further subdivided into 2 types of memory: semantic memory and episodic memory.
In humans, episodic memory is the long-term memory of events experienced in a particular context (place, date, associated emotion, etc.). It is a kind of autobiographical memory that allows us to tell facts, events as we felt and experienced them, through the prism of our subjectivity. This memory also allows you to mentally travel back in time, to remember past events and to project yourself into the future . It involves being aware of yourself to have the opportunity to immerse yourself mentally in a past situation. Does the dog have this ability to remember significant events in his life? To even remember what he did, thought or felt the day before in a given situation? No one knows this today with absolute certainty, although a 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology and conducted by Claudia Fuggaza showed in dogs the ability to mentally go back to remember the details of an event. .
If the dog has an episodic memory (which still divides the experts), it would seem however that it is much more limited in time than that of the human being (or at least different from that of the human being) taking into account the observed tendency of the animal to live in the present moment .
One of the most well-known consequences of this observation is that it would be useless and ineffective to reprimand the dog when it has not been caught because of its stupidity. For example, a dog that has peed on the living room carpet will not understand being reprimanded when he returns home, whether this return occurs within 10 minutes or 2 hours of his stupidity. The dog does not have the cognitive capacity to make the link between the anger of its master and its stupidity when the reprimand occurs “after the fact”. On the other hand, the dog will retain much better “the lesson” if it is “caught in the act” because it will then be able to better associate in its brain its act with the reprimand of its master when these two events occur at the same time.
Semantic memory is the memory of facts and concepts . It allows us to store general knowledge of the world so that we can use it when we need it. In humans, semantic memory is the memory of “encyclopedic” knowledge. For example, we are able thanks to it to name the days of the week, to state that Paris is the capital of France etc. This type of memory, unlike episodic memory, is not linked to a particular context: we know, without knowing exactly when and where we learned what we know.
The dog would also have a form of semantic memory that would allow him to extract information and meaning from his different experiences . It is this type of memory that would allow him to associate an act with a verbal indication from his master after a learning phase.
What influences the dog’s memory skills?
We know that the memory capacities in a dog are influenced by various factors such as its vigilance and its attention, the repetition of the experience to memorize and the emotion felt during this experience. The stronger this emotion, the more easily the experience will be imprinted and in the animal’s memory. This applies to positive experiences for the dog as well as to negative experiences. For example, in the first case, an exercise carried out with rewards that give a lot of pleasure to the dog will be retained more easily while it may be enough, in the second, a single traumatic event for the dog develops a phobia from from this bad experience.