Let’s say your long-term relationship totally implodes. Browsing for a new apartment, or a therapist that takes your insurance, you hear your dog bark in the other room—and realize, with a start, that it’s not actually your dog. Once you’re all moved out, the dog will be out of your life, too. Stewing in self-pity you think—and subsequently become convinced—that this dog, who you’ve fed and bathed who knows how many times, and coined several adorable nicknames for, will forget you ever existed by the start of next spring.
Probably, for your own health, you should just avoid those kinds of thoughts. Still, the question remains: Are you correct? Can a dog forget one of the people in its life, if that person suddenly leaves it for a long (or long-ish) period of time? To find out, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts in canine behavior, psychology and medicine. As it turns out, this facet of dog-memory is difficult to study: systematic research on the subject is close to non-existent. But a vast body of anecdotal evidence suggests that, barring a neurodegenerative illness, your dog will probably never fail to recognize you.
Lecturer and Coordinator, Companion Animal Cognition Center, Animal Behavior and Conservation Program, Hunter College
Most pet owners will agree that their pets can remember things. One example: a dog getting excited to head out for a walk after seeing or hearing a leash. Or a dog learning to associate commands with actions—sitting when told to sit. These reflect semantic memory, a type of explicit memory, where previously learned information is recalled.
Evidence for semantic memory in animals has been observed across a variety of species. In dog cognition studies, many experimental paradigms utilize a dog’s semantic memory to assess other aspects of their cognitive abilities. However, the question of “can dogs forget their owners?” employs another type of explicit memory called episodic memory.
Episodic memory refers to memories of autobiographical events—in other words, recalling personal experiences. Endel Tulving, who defined episodic and semantic memory, proposed that conscious recollection was required to demonstrate episodic memory. Given that we have no good way of evaluating consciousness, also known as self-awareness, in animals, it is incredibly challenging to suggest that dogs, or other animals, have episodic memory.
To get around this definitional constraint, researchers have separated the behavioral criteria required for episodic memory from the conscious component and termed this “episodic-like” memory. Using this definition, animal behavior researchers can now evaluate whether or not animals behaviorally demonstrate the recalling of autobiographical events.
To date, there is evidence that some non-human animals, such as great apes, dolphins and scrub jays may possess some form of episodic-like memory. But how about our dogs? Are they capable of episodic-like memory? Can they remember us—or forget us? In a 2016 study, Claudia Fugazza and colleagues evaluated episodic-like memory in dogs. The results suggest that dogs can recall their owner’s actions, even in instances in which they were not explicitly commanded to do so. These findings indicate that dogs may have episodic-like memory in which memories are linked to specific times and places.
While we may not yet know the answer to “can dogs forget their owners?”, it seems plausible that the evidence for episodic-like memory, in the form of memories related to time and space, may extend to remembering things like “who”. We need more research to uncover the answer to this question, but for now, it’s nice to come home to a dog, that in our mind, appears happy to see us.
Professor, Psychology, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and Guest Professor at Stockholm University, whose research focuses on animal learning and memory
Many animals have excellent long-term memory. A long-term memory, as the name suggests, can remain intact without significant degradation for years. Anecdotes about pets recognizing their first owner, or another significant person in their life, after many years are supported by experiments on animal memory, in which animals have been trained to identify images and then had their memory tested months or even years later. In fact, even pigeons, who are not considered overly intelligent by lay people, can remember hundreds of images for many months.
The question is more whether the memory is formed in the first place than whether it will be remembered, once formed. For the most part, animals form long-term memories of events and situations that they deem meaningful. If a person is particularly mean to the animal, they might form right away a very strong aversive memory, and thereafter react with fear or aggression. If a person forges a long term bond through daily, positive interactions, that person will likewise be remembered for many years. I am not positive that casual acquaintances will be remembered as well.
Memories of other beings (animal or human) are more easily formed in social animals, such as dogs, horses, or parrots. Cats are more solitary and therefore they do not feel strongly about the mere presence of other beings. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that extensive positive interaction will not form a memory at all. Moreover, because they are less social, cats are also less expressive of their emotions, so they might still remember someone but not be very vocal about it. I’m afraid this will be another point of argument between dog people and cat people.