Humans have called dogs “man’s best friend” for ages. Dogs and people just get along so well, and it’s not just a coincidence. It turns out we really understand each other; our minds may have more in common than we think.
A new study published in Current Biology demonstrates that dogs too can exhibit signs of using episodic memory, a type of memory once thought to be a human-only trait that allows you to remember nearly everything that happened at a specific point in time.
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With episodic memory, you’re not necessarily paying full attention to all of your surroundings when something happens, but despite that, you can still look back on everything and remember what went on.
In the study, 17 dogs were reportedly trained to expect treats after sitting down, and the research would not begin until all of them would sit down reliably after their training. They were taught to expect a treat after sitting down.
Despite expecting a treat and having their mind solely set on getting one after sitting down, the dogs were able to remember specific actions carried out by their owner despite being unrelated to sitting down and getting a treat for it.
In this instance, a video demonstration shows a dog expecting to receive a treat for sitting down, but when the owner says, “do it,” the dog repeats what the owner did leading up to the treat expectation:
Because tapping on the umbrella wasn’t a part of the dog’s routine for sitting down and getting a treat for it, the dog was not trained to tap on the umbrella specifically. The dog, instead, remembered what the owner did. So, when the owner said “do it,” the dog went ahead and did what it remembered happening leading up to the expectation to receive a treat.
This demonstrates episodic memory because the dog was not focusing on the umbrella at all during the entire research study. Instead, it was focusing on the owner and sitting down to get the treat. While the dog didn’t pay much attention to the umbrella, the owner was able to tap into the dog’s episodic memory to get the dog to tap on the umbrella too.
"From a broad evolutionary perspective, this implies that episodic-like memory is not unique and did not evolve only in primates but is a more widespread skill in the animal kingdom," researcher Claudia Fugazza says.
"We suggest that dogs may provide a good model to study the complexity of episodic-like memory in a natural setting, especially because this species has the evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups."
Episodic memory may also pertain to many other animal species, but scientific research hasn’t spanned across the animal kingdom just yet. Further research may help us better understand the thought processes of other types of animals in similar situations in the future.