A team of researchers has discovered that dogs have the ability to remember their owner’s past actions even when the memory testing is unexpected. The team found that the dogs demonstrated episodic memories, a skill previously only studied in primates. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Current Biology.
An episodic memory is the ability to recall past events while remembering the time, place, and context. Although episodic memory is often considered a feature of humans, there has been debate in the scientific community on whether or not there’s an equivalent in nonhuman animals. Episodic memory is difficult to test in animals because the animal can’t know they’re being tested on a recent event. In addition, there’s no way of knowing exactly what an animal is thinking or remembering.
A research team designed an experiment to test whether or not domestic dogs had episodic memories. The key was figuring out a way to see if the dogs remembered an action when it wasn’t rewarded and the dogs didn’t realize they were being tested. The team used a method that involved teaching the dogs a trick called “Do as I Do” to test for episodic memory. The group of 17 dogs was trained to imitate the actions of their handlers when given the “Do It” command. For example, a handler could lie down and the dog would need to mimic them by also lying on the ground.
After teaching the dogs the Do as I Do trick, the researchers had the dogs’ handlers perform a behavior. The dogs were then asked to lie down, regardless of their handler’s previous actions. After lying down, the handlers gave the Do It command to see if the dogs could remember the previous event. All of the dogs performed the correct behavior although they became less accurate if more time had passed since the handlers’ actions. The research team concluded that dogs have some form of episodic-like memory.
All of the dogs in the study passed the memory test, showing that domestic dogs may have episodic memories. The authors of the paper recommend dogs as a possible model for studying memory in nonhuman animals.
Fugazza et al. Recall of Others’ Actions after Incidental Encoding Reveals Episodic-like Memory in Dogs. Current Biology (2016).