Do dogs have personal memories?

Human beings have the ability to remember events they’ve experienced (date, place, emotional state), a function fulfilled by episodic memory. A group of scientists of the Department of Ethology at the University Eötvös Loránd (Budapest, Hungry) wanted to know if dogs also shared this form of memory. But how can you prove that animals have personal memories without being able to "ask" them? The researchers found the solution: Do as I do.

It may seem surprising that scientists thought it useful to prove that dogs can travel mentally in time and recall a specific event. Indeed, their behavior alone would seem to suggest that they possess this ability: for example a dog won't venture into a neighbor's garden if a prior attempt ended in a frigid welcome from a fellow canine. But isn't this reluctance more likely due to a memory for the facts and rules necessary for survival (semantic memory)?

Using this "Do as I do" test, Claudia Fugazza and her colleagues tried to establish the presence of episodic memory in dogs, or at least in the 17 dogs involved in their experiment. The dogs were trained to observe a person performing a specific action that they were then expected to perform as well when they received the Do it! command. The tasks performed included standing upright on a table, jumping over obstacles, sitting on a chair or placing a hand (a paw!) on an umbrella. Since this training alone wasn't enough to prove that the dogs were using their episodic memory to reproduce the action, the researchers added a second part to the test, which could demonstrate that the dogs had the ability to remember an event without expecting to need to remember it (as is the case in the first part of the test).

In order to provoke and test this unexpected recall, the researchers trained the dogs to lie down after seeing a person perform any type of action. Take for instance the example of the umbrella: if someone placed his hand on an umbrella, the dog was supposed to lie down and stay still. But occasionally, the researchers surprised them by commanding them to Do it! In this case, after a latency period, the dog performed the action. According to the scientists, this type of reaction shows that the dogs are capable of remembering what the person did, even though they had no reason to think that they would need to remember it. The important finding highlighted in the study published in Current Biology is that the dogs remembered events that they hadn’t performed previously, but had only observed. According to the authors, this is proof that the dogs activated their episodic memory. In addition, the surprise memory tests took place after one minute and one hour; beyond this interval and even within it, the results demonstrated that the memories faded.

To conclude their study, the researchers indicated that the method could be of interest in trying to understand whether dogs are self-aware.
Source: Claudia Fugazza, Akos Pogany, Adam Miklosi, Recall of Others’ Actions after Incidental Encoding Reveals Episodic-like Memory in Dogs, in Current Biology, n°26, Dec. 2016.


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