Dogs have a similar kind of memory to the one that gives humans their sense of self

Image: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko
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Science has found that your dog remembers the way you do.

A new study published yesterday (Nov.23) in Current Biology reveals dogs can remember things even if they are not instructed to do. According to the study, (pdf. pg.4) this “is the first evidence of episodic-like memory of others’ actions in a non-human species.”

The specific part of “episodic-like memory” suggests that dogs are able to construct their memories with unique feelings, according to the scientists from MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group and Eotvos Lorand University. In humans, episodic memory, which lets them remember things at particular times and places, involves awareness of one’s self.

“Traditionally episodic memory has been linked to self-awareness but as we do not know whether dogs are self-aware we call it episodic-like memory,” Claudia Fugazza, the lead author told the Guardian.

Scientists employed 17 dogs and applied the “do-as-I-do” training technique in which dogs were trained to imitate their owners’ actions.

In the first step, a dog was exposed to a series of actions by its trainer. Then the trainer asked the dog to mimic the actions by giving the command “do it!” For instance, the dog was trained to lie down on a mat as a response to “do it.”

Then, the study added one more step. After the dog laid down, the trainer did one more thing without any vocal instruction that the dog had not seen before, like touching an umbrella next to the dog.

In order to test if the dog remembered the last action, the trainer then took it behind a screen for a minute. The change of scenery helped distract the dog since it tended to lie down on the mat as it was trained to do. This time, after the trainer said “do it,” the dog went to tap the umbrella instead of lying down.

That suggests a dog can remember things it wasn’t concentrating on, an “incidental encoding” that helps it repeat the trainer’s actions even without being intentionally instructed to do so. However, the dog’s memory faded somewhat over time.

It’s unclear if dogs are self-aware, but the study sheds new light on the loss of human episodic memory in Alzheimer’s disease (paywall).