A group of researchers from Budapest, Hungary, proved that dogs could remember much more things than just commands or object names.

Humans have the ability to remember certain situations that occurred in the past, along with specific things involved in the situation like places, people and maybe some emotions. That’s called episodic memory, different from semantic memory, in which we remember general knowledge that we gather trough the years.

For decades, we humans have believed that our dogs reacted to the intonation of the words we spoke to them, rather than thinking dogs understood the words coming out of our mouths. Photo credit: Huffington Post / Bark Spot
For decades, we humans have believed that our dogs reacted to the intonation of the words we spoke to them, rather than thinking dogs understood the words coming out of our mouths. Photo credit: Huffington Post / Bark Spot

According to the studies in the past, scientists concluded that only humans were capable of going back on time, cognitively speaking. In the other hand, dogs were known for being capable of using the semantic memory. That’s the reason why this kind of animal can remember when to sit, leave or enter a room, after being trained.

However, recent studies show that dogs are capable of using an ability similar to the episodic human memory. In this matter, they are capable of remembering specifically what their owners do and when they do it. In this issue, there are studies that show that another species might have a similar episodic memory ability, such as birds, rats, and monkeys.

How could researchers discover this?

A group of investigators from the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary gathered a group of 17 pet dogs and began a special training.

The method used is called “do as I do”, and consists of a dog owner performing a particular action (like touching a chair) and afterward telling the dog to perform that same action by saying “Do it”. When a dog successfully performed the action, they were rewarded with treats.

Subsequently, they change the order of things, and when performing an action, they will tell the dogs to lie down instead. Round after round, the dogs one by one started to obey and began to lie down. This, according to the researchers, is a prove that the dogs had lost any expectation of receiving the “Do it” command any time soon.

Afterward, the owners would change the dynamic again. Now, when they performed the action the dogs would eventually lie down, and after a minute or so, the owners will tell the dogs “Do it”, opposite to the dog´s previous expectations. They repeated this mechanism but with a 30 minutes interval.

The leader of the investigation, the ethnologist Claudia Fugazza, said that because scientists cannot figure out what dogs are thinking, they have to near down to the behavioral properties that the dog shows. The group of dogs involved in the experiment had already experienced the “do as I do” method in the past.

Ultimately, the test was to prove if the dogs had any recollection of their owner´s action. The question was, in case they did, if they could dig out that memory from their cognitive system.

Results of the study

Even when scientists admitted that there were no expectations from the dogs in relation to repeating the action they once memorized, about 60 percent of the dogs imitated their owner’s action in the one-minute interval. After the one-hour interval, 35 percent of the dogs performed the human action.

“What’s lovely about the study is the way it shows dogs remembering an action that they’d seen at a later time, without doing it themselves. It speaks to what might be on their mind: that they are remembering episodes that they witness, not just things that they are the subjects of,” said Alexandra Horowitz, lead researcher of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard.

In past studies done by the Hungarian researchers, the dogs were involved in a “do as I do” test but without the addition of the “Lie down!” command. In that opportunity, the dogs that saw their owners actions almost perfectly imitated even one hour after the memorization.

In this matter, according to Fugazza, the meaning of the lower success rate confirms that there is a clear relation with the properties of the episodic memory from humans. In humans, this ability to remember tends to decay faster and might explain why dogs were less capable in the current study.

Critics of the research

A behavioral scientist from the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University has said that the results of the tests do not confirm an episodic-like memory ability in dogs.

“Maybe a lot of experience of “Do it” has led the dogs to always pay at least some attention to what the human does in case they are asked to copy it. I can think of lots of not very exciting explanations for these findings,” he declared.

However, the authors of the study said that this new evidence would make more viable some new research regarding cognitive abilities in dogs or other species.

Other discoveries

The same group of scientist from Hungary discovered this year that dogs can recognize some words. While doing some testing with 13 family dogs, the researchers found out that dogs use both sides of their brain hemispheres when receiving several phrases, just like humans. Canines process the human words using the left side of the brain while the right side is used to analyze the intonation.

These discoveries prove that dog´s cognitive system might not be much different than the human one and more studies will come in order to know exactly how canines actually think.

Source: NPR