Nearly all dog parents have wondered how long a dog’s memory is. Can they remember their previous families? Do they remember people they only met once? Oftentimes, it’s difficult to tell, and it can certainly vary from dog to dog. If only our dogs could talk so they could tell us what they remember about their past. But instead, we’ll just have to research it ourselves and guess based on our dog’s behaviors.
Short Term vs. Long Term Memory in Dogs
Not all memory is equal, no matter what creature we’re discussing. Humans have discovered that once a memory is created, it must be stored, even if it’s briefly. Our brains can either store memories in the sensory stage, short term memory, or long term memory. Then, the different stages of memory storage work to filter through our memories so we’re not overwhelmed with them all day, every day.
Short term memories for humans, dogs, and even cats are the types of memories that the brain can hold for a few minutes, such as a phone number. It often correlates with learning new things. For humans, that might be related to math or reading, but for dogs, it might be related to new commands or expectations.
On the other hand, long term memory is a memory that we can recall from the past. Thus, a dog might be able to recall an exciting event from a year ago better than their memories from yesterday. Short term memory often lasts only 5 to 30 seconds while long term memories could last forever.
Like humans, dogs have similar types of memories. In fact, it’s suggested that they have better long term and short term memories than cats. However, a dog’s memory can decline over time, much like a human’s can. So, as your dog ages, it’s possible that their long term and/or short term memory might not be as powerful as it used to be.
How Long is a Dog’s Memory Span?
Dogs are known to have a longer short term memory than most animals. It’s suggested that a dog’s memory span is about 27 seconds long. While this might sound short, it’s fairly similar to the short term memory of a human. However, humans seem to remember more things because we have more methods of memorizing and studying information, meaning we can store information and memories in more ways than most animals can.
It’s thought that dogs can’t recall many details about specific events. Dogs likely don’t think back on casual events like humans might, but they can recall important memories that could help them survive in the wild. For example, while your dog might not remember their day at the park last week, they might remember exactly where they buried a bone.
Dogs tend to associate their memories with smells, sounds, and sights. This is why your dog will get so excited when they see you reach for your coat or open a treat bag. They use their senses to associate that action with a pleasant memory. The same could be true for bad memories too, such as when they smell a person who was mean to them or if they hear thunder.
A dog’s short term and long term memories are similar to a humans, only they’re much simpler and more instinctual. Yet, there’s still lots for us to learn about how the canine mind works.
Can Dogs Remember Their Old Families?
If you adopt a rescue dog, chances are they’ve had a family or two before you. Even if they were a stray, they probably had many eventful experiences before they knew you. So, many humans wonder if dogs are capable of remembering their past owners. After all, many dogs show signs of fear or excitement that seem to be related to past events. So, how far can a dog’s memory go?
Humans have episodic memory, which means some of our memories are tied to a specific time, including hours, days, and years. This type of memory is different for dogs though. Dogs don’t associate their memories with time. So, if they have a memory of their past life, they might not recognize how long ago it was. Instead, they’ll remember it based on certain senses that trigger them.
For example, if your dog has unusual reactions to men with beards or women with short hair, they might be remembering their past humans. Sometimes, dogs miss these people, but other times, they’re fearful when reminded of them. There are also many stories of dogs remembering their humans after years apart, such as when they get lost and find their way home. Some of these dogs were lost for almost their entire lives, but they still seem to remember their humans as if no time had passed.
It’s unclear exactly how far back a dog can remember, but as long as they have some smells, sights, or sounds to remind them, then it could trigger a memory. So, it’s likely that your dog will remember their old family if something reminds them of it, but they probably don’t spend all their time thinking about it. In most cases, your dog is much happier with you anyway.
How Much Does Your Dog Really Remember?
There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done about a dog’s memory. But it seems that a dog’s memory can go back for years as long as they have something to remind them of that memory. As for their short term memory, it might be similar to a human’s, but dogs need a little more help when asked to remember things. That’s why extra patience and consistency is essential when helping your dog remember new things.
Your dog’s brain doesn’t work exactly like your mind, so it’s important to be kind and gentle when training them. Dogs are certainly a part of the family, but they’re not human, so they learn things in their own ways. Maybe one day we’ll know more about the canine brain, but until then, we just need to keep taking our time with dog training.