New dog owners will quickly observe how their pets appear to learn from repetition. Whether that’s the morning feeding routine or what the sound of a leash being picked up means, you will quickly see your dog’s memory in action.
But what more longer-term events? For example, will dogs remember bad experiences from 3 years ago, do dogs have long term memories of previous owners? I wanted to find out, so I looked at the scientific research on how a dog memory will last.
How long are dogs’ memories? Research shows that dogs have long-term memories than up to 2 to 5 and a half years. This is in stark contrast to their short-term memory of up to 2 minutes. Dogs have two types of long-term memory that let them remember things for an indefinite period.
How long do dogs memories last?
When you observe your dog’s behavior, sometimes it can be confusing when you assess how long their memories last. Let me give you an example.
You might scold your dog for knocking over the kitchen trash bin while searching for the leftover cheeseburger they saw you throwing. Then you’ll step out for a few minutes to grab the mail, and when you return, they’ll jump excitedly to welcome you as though you two weren’t at odds with each other just moments ago.
When you assess your dog’s memory in that instance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that dogs have terrible short-term memories… and you’d be right according to research (more on that later).
But on the other hand, dogs clearly have good long-term memories. How else can you explain them recognizing a friend of yours who walks through the door for the first time in a couple of years?
To understand this better, we need to look at the science that explains how long dogs’ memories last, starting with short-term memory research.
How long is a dog’s short-term memory?
To find out how good dog’s short-term memory is, researchers at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University, Sweden conducted a study in 2015. The research involved testing the short-term memories of 25 animal species, including dogs.
Surprisingly (I think) they concluded that dogs have a short memory as long as just two minutes, and no longer. That’s quite incredible and explains how dogs will so quickly forgive a human after being scolded. Here’s a quote from the researchers.
“The study shows that animals have different memory systems. Simply put, animals have short term memory and specialized memories. In short-term memory, animals store information about almost anything but the information disappears quickly. Animals also have a variety of specialized memories that, on the one hand, can only store a certain type of information, but on the other hand, the information is stored for a very long time.”
So, if you come back from the grocery store to find your curtain sheers in ruins, don’t bother yelling at your dog. They’ll have no idea why you’re mad in the first place because they can’t recall what they did hours ago – or even relate the cause and effect.
But that’s just about their short-term memory.
How long is a dog’s long-term memory?
How long dogs’ memories last over the longer term is an entirely different story and works on the opposite end of the spectrum. More research shows that dogs have good long-term memories and remember things for as long as their memory serves them – just like humans, dogs can suffer age-related memory loss.
An interesting piece of research showed how dogs can remember their mothers up to 2 years after being separated.
To come to this conclusion, 18 mother dogs and 49 puppies were tested in 1994 research by a Dr Hepper. The puppies were separated from their mothers when they between 8 and 12 weeks of age.
Two years later, the puppies and mothers were brought together again to see if there was any evidence to be seen on how long dogs’ memories are. Incredibly, the now adult dogs recognized their mother, with 37 of the former 49 puppies spending more time sniffing a cloth scented by their mother.
It was clear that dogs have a good long-term memory that can last up to 2 years, as these puppies were able to carry the memory of their mother from infancy to adulthood.
Another study using different breeds of dogs confirmed Dr. Hepper’s findings into how long dog’s memories can last. Gillis C. et.al conducted a similar experiment on 8 dogs (4 Collies, 2 Cairn Terriers, 1 Golden Retriever, and 1 Shih Tzu) that had been separated from their mothers for 7 to 68 months.
In this test, 7 out of 8 dogs showed exceptional long-term memory, but this time some up to 5 and a half years later.
Similar research was also conducted to see how long dogs’ memories of their siblings are. It concluded that some of the recognition or memory was based off remembering the scents they were exposed to in the litter.
More examples of how a dog’s long-term memory can work
A dog’s long-term memory is what makes it possible for them to remember stuff like:
- The commands you taught them in the previous years.
- Someone they knew from way back.
- Their favorite canine mate after years of not seeing them.
- Their experience when they messed up around the house.
But it’s worth noting that dogs don’t remember things from the past the same way we do. The reason being, they lack a clear episodic memory. That’s what experts have concluded, as quoted on the Guardian website:
“A team from Hungary have discovered that dogs are able to recall their owner’s actions, even when they were not specifically instructed to do so, suggesting that dogs, like humans, have what is known as “episodic memory” – memories linked to specific times and places.”
Humans have fantastic episodic memory. Put simply, this is what helps us recall and describe snippets of past events exactly as they happened.
For example, let’s you sat for a difficult test in November 2020, where you’d go to study for this test, how big or small the exam room was like, what color the exam paper was, and so forth.
While dogs can remember events from long ago, they simply can’t replay the details like a movie in their mind.
How a dog’s long-term memory works
There are two kinds of long-term memory that dogs possess:
1. Semantic memory: how dogs remember past knowledge
A dog’s semantic memory helps them memorize and recall facts said to them repeatedly.
Humans also have this memory. That’s how you remember things that aren’t based on personal experience, but facts — for instance, the math equations you learned in school ten years ago.
Semantic memory enables your dog to remember training commands and hold onto these commands their entire life.
This type of memory also explains why you can bring a rescue dog home, and as soon as you mention commands like “sit” or “leave”, they’ll do exactly as you say (if they had past training). You can even rename a rescue dog, but they will still remember their old names when called.
Their semantic memory allows them to recall everything their previous handler taught them.
2. Associative memory: how dogs remember past experiences
Associative memory is the ability of a dog’s brain to form emotional connections towards certain people, places, situations and pets, and store memories of the dog’s emotional experiences from these encounters.
In other words, our four-legged companions associate almost everything with a feeling. The feeling can be positive or negative.
Therefore, what a particular event, person, place, or pet made them feel will stick in their associative memory for a long period.
For instance, if you catch them head down your kitchen trash bin. and you (out of temper) shout while hitting them with your kitchen cloth, they’ll associate the trash bin with a negative feeling.
This negative emotional experience will stay in their associative memory for the longest time (perhaps forever), so you’ll never find them near your trashcan again.
Keep in mind, though, that they won’t recall how the “beating” went down (they have no episodic memory, remember?).
Rather, they’ll simply remember how being near the trash can made them feel (terrible), and that alone will make them avoid that area completely for years.
Do dogs have memories of previous owners?
Dogs have associative memories of people, their owner, and other pets. You might have seen this in action, for example I bet you’ve come across those heartening videos of dogs recognizing their owners after years of being apart, like this one here.
But how do our dogs remember previous owners like this?
Well, their exceptional associative memory and senses make all this possible.
A huge part of how long a dog’s memory is and their ability to recall people from the past stems from their extraordinary senses. Our canine friends are experts in remembering people’s faces, scents, and voices.
It doesn’t take long before a dog learns their owner’s facial appearance, smells, and talks. Their sense of smell is so strong that they can associate it with a particular person or pet from miles away. People who run dog kennels will often say how the dogs in their care miss the owners to varying degrees.
Experts say that the part of a dog’s brain responsible for analyzing scents is nearly 40 times stronger than ours. It can even help them to detect an earthquake coming, days before the event.
Plus, dogs remember how certain people made them feel, thanks to their associative memory. If a dog had the most positive experiences with their long-lost owner, they’ll be elated to reunite with them.
This is how dogs can hold memories of certain people for a lifetime. Over time, a person’s scent, voice, and facial appearance become part of a dog’s associative memory.
And if someone was good or unkind to your canine friend, their brain’s associative memory will store this positive or negative emotional experience. So, when they see this person years later, they’ll recall what this person made them feel – purely on the scent.
Same case when you’re taking your furry friend to the vet, and they bump into that dog they had a terrific play date with at the park a year ago.
Your dog will remember their playmate just by their scent. They’ll be happy because they’ll recall that this canine mate was good to them at the park.
If an experience or someone mattered, your dog will remember it for as long as they live.
Handy Hint: Additional research has also been conducted to test whether dogs understand when their owners die.
How long is a dog’s memory of a person?
A dog’s memory of someone can last a lifetime because they never forget how a person made them feel, how this person smelt, what their voice was like and how their face looked (their associative memory will always remind them).
Do dogs have long-term memory?
Yes, you got that right. Dogs do have a long-term memory, possible lasting more than 5 years.
Can dogs remember you after three years?
Yes, that’s correct. They’ll know you through your scent, facial appearance, voice, and how being around you made them feel.
How long do dogs remember what they did wrong?
Findings show a dog’s short-term memory lasts two minutes. That means it only takes two minutes for a dog to forget they wronged you.
Handy Hint: Did you know that some dogs wear diapers as they get older to help with incontinence. However, wearing them at night can come with risk.
From how they behaved the first day of bringing them home to the hilarious tug of war game you had yesterday, the memories you have of your canine best friend are endless. But how long is their memory?
Well, based on the science and research presented in this article, we can say for certain that a dog’s memory can last between 2 and 5 and a half years. However, anecdotal experiences tells us that dogs have even longer memories than that… perhaps lasting their own lifetimes.
Whether tall, short, big, or tiny, we love our canine friends to death. They fill our lives with many beautiful moments, and it gets better with each passing day – as more memories are made.