Even if you’ve forgotten it yourself, your dog probably remembers what you were doing a few minutes ago. A study has found that dogs can remember and imitate their owners’ actions even an hour later. The results suggest that dogs can remember and relive experiences similar to how people do.
It shouldn’t be a big surprise to people who own dogs. Claudia Fugazza, an animal behavior researcher at Budapest’s Eotvos Lorand University, authored the study. According to her, proving this ability has been the tricky part.
Towards this end, she and her Czechoslovakian Wolfdog named Velvet helped develop a training method called “Do As I Do.” It trains dogs to observe their owner’s action, and then imitate that action upon the command: “Do it.” Fugazza and her colleagues used this to test dogs’ memory of events.
In a study session, a trained dog would first witness the owner performing some unfamiliar action. Then After a while, the dog is given the command to imitate: “Do it.” The dog responds by repeating the action. In this way, dogs consistently demonstrated their ability to remember what their owners had done, sometimes up to an hour after the event.
The likely explanation is that the dogs are simply doing something that we humans do all the time, says Fugazza. They remember an event by traveling back in time (in their minds) and reliving the experience. But still, the study stops short of the conclusion that dogs possess full-fledged episodic memory. Such memory is traditionally linked to self-awareness, and until now there has been no concrete evidence of self-awareness in dogs and consequently no method for testing it.
For a while, scientists believed that episodic memory was unique to people. But over the recent past, researchers have come up with evidence of episodic kind of memory in a range of species – including monkeys, rats, and birds. The case of dogs has been especially challenging, though.
Victoria Templer, a behavioral neuroscientist at Providence College, says “They’re so tuned into human cues, which can be a good thing. But it also can be a disadvantage and make it very tough, because we might be cuing dogs when we are totally unaware of it.”
Templer, who wasn’t involved in the study is all praise for the Budapest study that did an excellent job ensuring that dogs relied on their own memories and without getting any guidance from their owners. When we meet a new person, we use our episodic memories of past encounters to predict how the upcoming one might go. If you think it might be dangerous, you’re not going to want to interact with them. And that ensures the genes that allow episodic memories get passed along to the next generation.
The finding should be useful to understand why episodic memory has evolved so far in people. The probability is that is that we evolved the ability to relive the past to imagine the future. It may have even helped us survive.
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