Understanding Dog Memory

Scientific research on dog memory has lead to many questions as well as some answers. As a dog owner, you can make educated guesses about your dog's memory span including short-term memory and long-term memory. This knowledge can help in training and understanding a dog's reaction to separation from his friends.

Associative Memory Versus Real Memory

Dog memory can be best understood as primarily associative versus real memory. A dog remembers people and places based on associations he has with those people and places. If the owner puts on a specific article of clothing before taking the dog out for a walk, the dog will react with his usual excitement about going to the park when the owner puts on that coat. This will last for many years unless a new association to the coat is established. A dog is unlikely, however, to suddenly get excited about going for a walk without any sign of the coat, or the leash, or whatever reminds him of the walk.

Negative Versus Positive Associations

Associative memory can work towards the negative as well. If a dog has a traumatic vet visit after a ride in the car, he will react to car rides with fear until that memory is replaced by associating the car with getting to go out and play. The stronger the association, however, the harder it is to change the memory.

Dog Memory Span

Dogs have some real memory but it's only extremely short in its span. Most research indicates that a dog's short-term memory is about 10 to 20 seconds long. This means that if a dog poops in the house, for instance, and you scold him about it 5 minutes later, he won't associate the scolding to pooping in the house. He'll associate the scolding with you and pooping in general.

Dogs are clearly able to remember language and hand signals for many years. It's somewhat unknown whether this is associative or real memory but it is probably the former. A dog may associate the word "sit" with getting a treat so even if the treat is not present, he'll want to sit when he hears that word just in case a reward is involved.