How Long Is A Dog’s Memory? How Do Dog’s Memories Work?

How long is a dog's memory

How long is a dog’s memory?  Have you ever wondered how long your dog will retain certain information?  Does your dog forget about everything a few seconds after learning it or do they have a different way of recalling than we do?  All of these questions have come up for me at one time or another in my training and experience with dogs.

Hi my name is Mike and I train dogs.  Started this website to help other dog owners with questions and concerns that needed easy to understand answers.  Today we will be discussing the topic of dog memory in general and answering the specific question, “How long is a dog’s memory?”.  Without further delay, lets get moving!

>>New dog in the home?  Need some tips?<<

How Long is A Dog’s Memory Explained

So how long is a dog’s memory anyway?  First off, I think it would be a good idea to explain a bit about how dog memories work to our understanding and the different types of memories dogs can generate.

While humans have a short and long term memory that can recall images or even entire events, dogs are not equipped similarly.  The science appears to suggest that dog’s don’t recall images and events in the same way.  Instead, a dog’s memory works more off instinct and association.  These associations can be tied to various things (an action, a smell, etc.). The key here is to understand how these imprints work and change over time.

Dog Association Explained

Let’s take something like a simple walk for example.  For humans, we may remember a particular sunny day with good company and warm weather when we think of a walk.  For dog’s its all about the association.  What I mean by this is your dog learns and remembers by associating an action with a specific event.  A very common reaction I’m sure most of you have seen either at home or in a movie is a dog getting excited when you go for the leash.  Your dog has associated this leash with outdoor time and positive experiences.  That’s why some dogs will freak out when they see you going for the leash or putting on sneakers.  They know there’s a real good possibility of interesting action about to occur.

In a nutshell, that is how the associative memories work.  This is also the basis of how to train your dog but more on that later.  Lets look a bit deeper into the leash example.  Let’s say your dog was to associate the leash with a bad memory like being locked up in a kennel all day.  Instead of being excited about seeing you go for the leash, they may actually try and hide to avoid the upcoming event.

Think of associative memories that your dog’s have as their version of long term memory in a sense.  We are still learning through studies and experiments what dogs can and can’t retain but we’re pretty sure that association is their strongest form of long term memory retention.

What about their short term memories though?  Do dog’s have short term memory?  Lets Find out.

Dog Short Term Memory

In short, dogs do have short term memory but it is incredibly short.  I’m talking around 20-30 seconds tops.  This is why yelling at your dog or disciplining them a minute or two after an event won’t yield any real results.  What it will do is reinforce negative associations your dog may already have and teach them to fear you.

Once again, this all comes into play with training as well.  positive and negative associations will be developed through repetition.  A short term memory will be forgotten by your dog quickly but if reinforced, can become a positive or negative association.

To summarize, short term memory for dogs is very short and can be utilized in positive and negative ways depending on your understanding of how they process this information.  You can turn these short term memories into positive or negative associations as well depending on how you react to the initial events in question.  This is why it’s important to catch your dog in “the act”, so to speak.  When your dog is doing something positive or negative, that is when you want to address it to form the appropriate association.  Yelling at them about a broken vase hours later won’t change anything about that specific event.

does my dog remember meeting me

Does My Dog Remember Meeting Me?

This is a question I get from pet owners a lot.  They want to know if their furry little friend remembers the first time they met.  While there is some evidence that dogs can retain some episodic memories like humans do, the time lapse between the event in question is probably the biggest factor.  For example, if you have a new dog only a few months old, they may remember meeting you for the first time and continue building positive associations off of that memory.  If your dog has been with you for years though, these memories have probably been forgotten.

Just because your dog may not remember the first time you met doesn’t mean that they don’t remember you though.  Through daily interaction they build these positive associations and over time, you become a central focus in their lives.  Passage of time also works differently for dogs as well and this ties into their sense of smell and memory.  Lets take a more in-depth look.

Does My Dog Forget Me When I’m Gone For A Long Time?

This is another common question I get from new and seasoned dog owners.  They usually want to know 1 of 2 things.  Will my dog forget me If I go on a long vacation or don’t see them for a few months?  My dog had previous owners.  Will they forget them over time?

Lets talk about a long term vacation or prolonged absence first.  Your dog definitely has the capability to miss you and may even mope around for a day or two after you leave waiting for you to return.  Eventually, they will move on and live life normally.  Will they remember you when you return though?  Absolutely!  I’ve experienced this first hand with many pets and done research on it as well.  Your dog will remember you by smell most of the time.  Their sense of smell is tied tightly with their associative memory and when you do reappear, they will be bouncing off the walls with joy.

In regards to previous owners, your dog will not fondly recall memories of them in the past.  That’s not how their minds work.  If the previous owners are gone for a long period of time, your dog will eventually just move on.  If they pop back into the picture after several years, your dog will probably still remember them due to their scent.

In short, their sense of smell is a powerful tool that dogs will use to associate people with strong positive or negative emotions and memories.  Your dog won’t forget you if you take a vacation and they will be very happy to see you upon your return!

Dog Memory And Training

We started off asking the question “how long is a dog’s memory?”.  Here we now come to ways that you can effectively use their associative memory to build on a strong training foundation.  Association, repetition and instinct are all helpful tools when it comes to developing these skills as well. Lets take a look at some of the principles behind dog training and see how these methods can help to train your dog up from day 1.

Association Training

As discussed above, dogs use association to develop long term memory imprints.  These can be both positive and negative depending on the reactions over time.  This is one of the reasons that it’s important to develop good habits with your dog right away as they will begin to develop that foundation from the start.

One of the best ways to preform this kind of training is by using positive associations to convey when your dog is doing something correctly and immediately praising them for it.   A quick example would be teaching your dog to sit.  Give them the command, show them what to do and praise them when they complete the task.  Now repeat this process a bunch of times.  Each successful completion will reinforce the positive expected outcome from this act.  Eventually, your dog will sit on command because they have built a powerful positive association to the action.

dog memory and training

Repetition Training

Taking this one step further, we use the repetition combined with the association to further build out this training foundation.  Lets take another look at that teaching your dog to sit example from above.  If you were to show your dog how to sit once and give them praise, it would be a positive experience but also quickly forgotten.  The real power lies in repeating this act over and over so that your dog can build an association to it and thus “learn” to sit.

Repetition and association go hand in hand for your dog when teaching them new techniques and they can also be used to show them what not to do as well.  This can be a bit trickier because you have to wait for your dog to act out in order to correct it.  As I’ve stated before, there is no benefit to disciplining your dog hours after a negative event occurred. The time for action and association is when the act is occurring.

A good example would be a dog chewing on your favorite shoes.  If you come upon chewed shoes and the dog is nowhere in sight, finding them and yelling at them will only make them fear you for the wrong reasons.  If you were to catch your dog in the act and redirect them to something else, it would provide a much more positive outcome and hopefully save future pairs of shoes!

Instinct Training

Dogs are hardwired for some actions through instinct.  Because of this, some acts will come naturally to them and you can actually use these basic instincts to train them to proper behavior.  Dogs were originally outdoor animals and because of this, they associate many actions from birth to be done outside.  You can use this simple instinct when house training them to go potty outside.

This is where it all comes together.  Repetition, association and instinct work hand in hand with many training techniques.  For example, when house training your dog, the idea is to get them outside to do their business and not treat your carpets and floors as their personal toilet.  A great way to do this is by taking them for frequent walks early on and watching for when they go.  As they are going, praise them and maybe toss them a treat or 2 right after.  This builds those positive associations and the repetition part will be taken care of by nature.

Once you’ve gotten to know your dog better, you’ll also be able to watch for specific body language or your dog may intuitively reason to come to you when they need to go.  In a nutshell, that’s one way to use instinct to your advantage.

How Long Is A Dog’s Memory Concluded

So how long is a dog’s memory? If we are talking short term than 20-30 seconds max.  If we are talking long term, than it can be years and years.  The important thing to remember is that dogs memory is driven by association.  They learn and remember from repetitive actions.  Short term memories can be turned into association through the use of repetition and positive or negative feedback.

Dog’s don’t remember things the same way humans do but they do have capable memories.  Theirs are just driven by instinct and smells instead of by images and playback like ours.  There is some evidence that some dogs do have episodic recall like humans but this research is still very new.  We still have a lot to learn about our furry little friends and until one starts speaking to us, educated guesses and direct observation are our best tools!

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