Dogs are man’s best friend. For thousands of years they have been at our sides helping us hunt, protecting our homes and families while keeping us company. They have thrived with us into the modern-day world. But are dogs more intelligent than we give them credit for? Recent findings show that dogs have more complex memories that may be associated with emotions, times and places. Just as we have. Any dog owner will tell you that dogs can remember events from the past. It is difficult however, to say what kind of memory they use. A study in 2014 showed that dogs do experience emotions such as jealousy, which will come as no surprise to most dog owners . If we could understand whether they can recall the emotions they felt at the time, that would help us better understand our companions and their way of thinking.
An episodic memory in humans allows us to recall events from the past even if the event was not important at the time. A form of mental time travel. An example of this kind of memory would be remembering what you were doing during a big event, such as a celebrity death or the 9/11 attacks. What a person was doing at the time was not important but they have associated emotions to the time, place and actions. These kinds of memories are associated with humans’ sense of self as the memories are made with specific feelings.
‘Do as I Do’
The discovery that dogs can form similar memories was made using a variation of the ‘Do as I do’ method . 17 dogs were trained to mimic their owner’s actions. They were shown 6 different objects and then watched their owners carrying out a task with an object such as touching an umbrella. Next, the dogs were then told to copy the actions with the command “do it”. 94% of the dogs were able to copy their owners. After this the dogs were given a simple command such as lie down. The dogs were then told to “do it” again from a minute to an hour later to see if they could successfully remember the actions they performed earlier. By inserting a simple command between the “do it” commands the dogs were surprised by the second “do it” command. They didn’t expect to have to remember the earlier command. At 1 minute, 58% successfully remembered the action, while at 1 hour, 35% remembered .
These results showed that the dogs managed to recall the actions of a different species, humans, even when they did not expect to have to recall it, and then applied it their own body’s actions. This test could theoretically be applied to wide range of animals. However, the similarity of this sort of memory to our own is currently being debated. Without language, it is difficult for animals to communicate feelings and emotions and therefore difficult to determine conscious thought and self-awareness that is needed for an episodic memory. This new research cannot confirm episodic memory, but it can confirm a similar form of episodic memory in dogs.
Self-awareness in Animals
It is difficult to test whether dogs are self-aware. Self awareness is required in the formation of episodic memories, so instead we call it episodic-like memory. Dogs are not the first species to show episodic-like memories. The great apes, scrubs jays and humming birds have all shown the ability to recall events for their benefit such as remembering where they stored food. As in the dog study, these tests only proved to episodic-like memories and not episodic memories as the animals were not be shown they had self-awareness. Currently only 10 animals have proved self-awareness using tests such as ‘the mirror test’ . These tests cannot be used on all animals and do not demonstrate that they have the same mental time travel abilities we demonstrate. Additionally, this does not signify that they do not posses these abilities, simply that we have no effective way of testing this yet.
Humans have a bad habit of assuming our intelligence, memories and way of thinking are unique to us; that we are separate and superior to the animal kingdom. This study shows that episodic (or episodic-like) memories, are more widespread in the animal kingdom than first thought. This means dogs could prove useful when studying episodic-like memory in non-primate animals. It could also help us understand our closest companions better, and possibly improve the way we train and treat them. The study is an important step towards understanding whether animals have rich memories in a similar way to our experience of memory. If they do, it raises important considerations as to whether we should be treating animals better. Do we need stricter animal protection laws if they can recall past events and emotions in detail? If we knew an animal would remember past trauma and the feelings it felt, is it right to use these animals in animal testing?
Dogs are man’s best friend. This recent discovery suggests that our best friends are more like us than we think. This research is the first step towards understanding how our faithful companions’ memories work, and whether they possess a consciousness similar to ours. Dogs and the animal kingdom are likely to be more complex and intelligent than we give them credit for. Next time you accidentally stand on your dog’s feet or decide it’s too rainy for a walk – remember, your dog will remember too.
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