When it comes to having a short memory and getting easily distracted, dogs often get a bad rap. A new study released on Wednesday suggests their recall ability may be deeper than previously thought.
In fact, they appear to be able to remember what people did in the recent past, said the report in Current Biology. This kind of recall is known as episodic memory, the ability to mentally travel back in time and remember details about an event. It has been shown to exist in humans and primates, but never in dogs, until now. "It is not possible to simply ask them, ‘Do you remember what happened this morning?'" said lead researcher Claudia Fugazza.
So she adapted a training technique she pioneered called "Do As I Do" for the study, which allows dogs to answer with trained behaviors. According to the method, dogs are trained to imitate human behavior. A person may stand on a chair, leap in the air or tap an umbrella.
Dogs are trained to do the same on cue, when the person says "Do it." For this study, 17 dogs were first trained and rewarded in this method. Then they were trained to lie down no matter what actions their human trainer did. Suddenly, the trainer would say, "Do it," and the dogs would repeat the action they saw earlier without reward.
Fugazza, who works with one of the largest dog research outfits in the world, the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary, said the method goes beyond imitation to understand if a dog can unexpectedly remember an action from the past. "Dogs trained with this method can imitate their owners' actions even after a delay of 24 hours," she said.
The dogs studied included a variety of breeds and mixtures. They were able to recall their trainer's actions one hour and up to one day later, but beyond that, their memories began to wane, the study in Current Biology said. Questions about the depths of dog memory have stirred debate in the scientific community. Some experts have said episodic memory does not exist in dogs, because canines have no sense of self and they appear to live in a kind of eternal present.
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