What is a dog’s memory span? Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that dogs’ memories appear to be very good, and research suggests that dogs can recall past events. The memory span of dogs seems to vary, however, just as it does with humans.
Dogs Do Remember
We have no accurate way to tell exactly how dogs think or what they remember, since they can’t talk to us (obviously), but actions do speak much louder than words. Clearly, dogs remember things. Stories abound of reunions of people and long-lost dogs!
Some dogs seem smarter than others, but are they really? The herding and guarding breeds – Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers – appear to remember well, and they are consistently high on rankings lists for smart dogs. But they’ve been selectively bred and trained to obey humans’ commands and to react. Conversely, hunting breeds–terriers, hounds, Dachshunds–have been selectively bred to work independently and not to rely as heavily on humans.
The top 10 dog breeds, ranked in order of intelligence by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., are:
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd Dog
- Golden Retriever
- Doberman Pinscher
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Labrador Retriever
- Australian Cattle Dog
The ability to recall events is called episodic memory, and there is a big debate among scientists about whether dogs possess this ability. They sure seem to, but do they really?
Research on Dog Memory
Claudia Fugazza, Ph.D., is an expert in canine cognition. She has done numerous studies using a technique called “do as I do,” in which she basically teaches dogs to imitate her. But she’s gone beyond that, teaching dogs certain exercises and then asking them to do exercises for which they’ve not been trained.
Dr. Fugazza found that dogs’ accuracy and speed decreases on untrained exercises, but that they do the tasks surprisingly well. This suggests that dogs have problem-solving abilities based on similar previous experiences. This means that dogs don’t just “live in the moment,” that they can remember things over time.
Dr. Fugazza’s research includes a 2016 study published in Current Biology that showed dogs likely have episodic memory and a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports that found dogs appear to use episodic memory. In the 2020 study, Dr. Fugazza noted that dog memory may fade a bit with time, just as it does for people.
On the other hand, a 2014 National Geographic study found that dogs only remember events or exercises for two minutes. Others have concluded a dog’s intelligence is equivalent to a 3- to 5-year-old child.
Clearly, more research work needs to be done.