How much do you think your dog remembers about the day-to-day events in his life? Is his memory as good as yours, or is he only living in the moment? The ability to recall personal events and specific moments is known as "episodic memory," and it’s up for debate whether dogs possess this type of memory at all. Episodic-like memory in animals is currently a hot topic for scientists because it’s tied to the idea of self-awareness, the ability to think about oneself, thought by some to be the great divide between humans and animals. It’s also a tricky subject to study because you can’t simply ask animals what they remember about their life.
Or can you? Dr. Claudia Fugazza has discovered a way to essentially ask dogs what they remember by using her training technique called “Do as I Do.” Dr. Fugazza, a researcher at MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary, developed this method while studying imitation in dogs. It involves teaching a dog to repeat an action he has just observed when given the cue “Do it!” After initial training, if the dog watches a person look inside a bucket and then is told, “Do it!” the dog will look inside the bucket, too. If the person then walks around the bucket and repeats the “Do it!” cue, the dog will walk around the bucket in response, having learned to imitate the actions of the handler.
But that isn’t testing episodic-like memory yet. To truly be episodic-like recall, the initial storing of the event in memory needs to be incidental; there can’t be any knowledge that what is remembered will turn out to be important later. Therefore, the dog can’t be expecting to have his recall tested or be anticipating any sort of reward when making the initial observation. In a recent research study in the journal Current Biology, Dr. Fugazza and her colleagues modified the “Do as I Do” technique to take away the dogs’ expectation to imitate what they observed and consequently test their episodic-like memory.
In the study, 17 dogs were taught the “Do as I Do” method of imitation, performing behaviors like placing their paws on a chair or touching an umbrella with their nose. Once they had mastered the “Do it!” cue, and had learned to repeat their owner’s action, they were given another round of training. This time, they were taught to lie down after watching the human action, no matter what that action was. This took away the dog’s expectation to imitate what they were seeing.
In the next phase of the experiment, after the dogs were lying down reliably, the experimenters had the owners surprise the dogs by saying, “Do it!” after performing an action that had not yet been trained or tested. Even though the dogs had no reason to think they needed to remember what the owner had done, and they had no prior training with that action, they successfully repeated it. The dogs were tested both at one minute and one hour after observing the action, and even after the long wait, they were often still able to repeat what they had seen, although their accuracy faded a bit over time.
The dogs’ accuracy at the task was not quite as high as when they were expecting to imitate their owner during the initial “Do as I Do” training; however, it’s amazing the dogs showed such a capacity for something some scientists think is a human-only ability. The researchers concluded that the dogs were using episodic-like memory to repeat their owner’s actions, even an hour after they first observed them. This suggests that dogs are doing way more than living in the moment. They are forming memories all the time and are able to recall them when needed. And considering how important humans are to dogs, it’s likely your every action is not only being watched, but remembered, as well.