How long is the memory span of a dog?

Sometimes I wonder if Floss the collie has the memory span of a goldfish and the attention span of a gnat! But, it did get me thinking the other day; just how long do dogs remember things for?  Holidays4Dogs investigates.

When we talk about memory with any species we really need to consider long term and short term memory. Short term memory in humans is in fact, surprisingly short; just as it is in many other animals.  The function of the brain that stores short term memory can only deal with around seven items and only hold those memories for only a few seconds at a time.

Studies suggest that dogs, along with humans and many other species, have an average short term memory span of around 27 seconds.  However, people are adept at memorizing more things than others because they use tricks in order to help them, such as putting information into stories as a way of recalling key points; something animals cannot do.

In fact, experiments by behavioural scientists suggest that dogs, (and many other animals apart from humans), cannot remember much about specific events.  In other words, they are unable to travel mentally back and forth in time as we do and are not thought to possess episodic memory – an ability to retain the memory of events over long periods of time.  Humans are unique in their ability to remember casual events, along with the skill to learn from things that have happened in the past by reflexive thought.

This is not to say, however, that dogs cannot remember things over spans of time because their brain does retain specific information which might help them to survive – such as where they buried a bone. However, experts believe they are not utilizing episodic memory, but associative memory.

Like humans, associative memory in dogs helps them to remember things for longer.  Dogs readily associate an event or occurrence with what they see, smell or hear at the time.  So, for example, if you pick up the boots or coat you always go walking in, your dog will quite likely jump up in anticipation of an outing.  Dogs are usually very well attuned to every little thing that their owners do – many owners will not be aware of just how well our dogs notice nuances about human behaviour.  However, if there is nothing for them to associate with, they will readily forget what has happened.  This is why it is unfair to punish a dog that has soiled the house while left alone, because he will have no idea what he is being punished for.

When it comes to long term memory, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of dogs making long journeys to return to a previous owner or clearly being over the moon to see a long lost sibling or human family member.  However, more research needs to be done to establish more facts about how long term memory works in the canine species.  The jury is still out as to whether dogs have a form of episodic memory or whether their long term memory is connected to associative memories, such as smell or sound.

While we do not completely understand the way in which dog’s brains work in terms of memory – they certainly have a very real way of leaving wonderful, lasting memories for those around them.