PhotoYour dog likely remembers where the treats are kept and how to perform the tricks typically required to earn them, but Fido’s recall ability may be more robust than you think.

A new study suggests that dogs have the ability to remember what people did in the recent past. Previously, this kind of recall -- known as episodic memory -- was thought to exist in humans and primates only. Now, researchers say dogs also use episodic-like memory.

Findings published recently in Current Biology show that dogs can recall a person’s actions, even when they’re not expecting to be quizzed or rewarded for their stellar memory. The results of the study may serve to enrich our understanding of animal intelligence, said lead researcher Claudia Fugazza.

Recall of complex events

Episodic memory is the ability to remember a particular event that happened at a specific time and place, while semantic memory is the ability to commit something to memory by learning a rule. The latter was thought to be the only type of memory used by dogs, but the results of the new study suggest otherwise.

Finding evidence that dogs use episodic memory wasn’t easy; Fugazza pointed out that "You can't just ask a dog what it remembers." So, researchers attempted to find evidence that dogs use episodic memory by training 17 dogs to do a trick called “Do as I Do.”

Part one of the trick ended in a reward and required dogs to imitate human behavior. A human trainer may have tapped an umbrella, jumped, or stood on a chair. Dogs trained to do “Do as I Do” replicated the behavior when the person gave the “Do it” command.

Then, dogs were trained to lie down after watching their trainer perform an action. When the trainer suddenly said “Do it,” the dogs repeated the action they saw earlier, without reward, thus demonstrating evidence of episodic-like memory.

"Dogs trained with this method can imitate their owners' actions even after a delay of 24 hours," Fugazza said. After that, their memory of the event began to fade.

"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,” she said. The researchers say future studies may be able to use approaches similar to the "Do as I Do" training method in order to gain a better understanding of how animals’ minds work. 

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