Most of us know our dogs as faithful companions who love and protect us unconditionally. But did you know your pooch has more than just loyalty on his or her side? Dogs have been proven to show an uncanny degree of sensitivity when it comes to identifying familiar individuals. It seems like common knowledge that dogs are capable of distinguishing one person from another based solely on scent particularly if those scents come from someone within close proximity.
This is called a “distinctiveness” scent mark, and it’s something every animal needs to survive. As such, most animals rely on this method every day. For example, cats use their distinctive odor to hunt down prey, birds identify other birds with songs, and horses communicate with each other by smelling sweat. And even though we don’t typically think of dogs as creatures with high intellect, research shows that they too understand how essential scent marks are to survival.
In a study published in 2002, researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna found that German shepherds were able to distinguish between human males and females based on scent alone. Another experiment carried out at England’s Royal Agricultural College showed that female border collies could tell apart male and female sheep based on the differences in body odors. These findings suggest that dogs may be able to differentiate among members of the same species based on their own personal scent.
With all this said, scientists aren’t exactly sure what goes into canine olfaction. Some believe that dogs’ extraordinary abilities are due to their highly developed sense of smell combined with genetic predispositions. Others propose that dogs’ superior sniffing skills occur because they’ve evolved over time to associate certain smells (like food) with positive outcomes.
Still, others contend that dogs’ exceptional nose capabilities stem from a combination of both natural selection and learned behavior. Regardless of the reason, many veterinarians and trainers feel strongly that training plays a role in developing these skills. So does this mean that dogs actually retain information about specific occurrences?
Canine cognition isn’t fully understood yet, so we can only speculate about whether dogs store memories. However, most experts agree that dogs definitely learn new behaviors through experience and repetition. In fact, one researcher believes that dogs may not possess a general memory capacity, but rather, they’re better suited to remembering specific events.
This theory suggests that dogs can recall particular incidents that occurred in the past. Although this might sound unlikely, there are several examples of trained dogs recalling past experiences, including a Chihuahua named Fido, who was taught to fetch tennis balls after being abandoned. The dog would go outside and retrieve any object thrown near him. He later mastered retrieving objects specifically tied to strings.
Another dog named Hachiko became the poster child for memory recall. When he was young, Hachiko lost his owner during the Great Kanto Earthquake, which devastated Tokyo in 1923. Years later, Hachiko traveled back to Japan every week, despite having no clue where his master had gone.
Although we may never truly know what goes on inside dogs’ heads, it’s clear that they can learn and memorize specific details relating to events that took place in the past. This doesn’t necessarily imply that dogs have retained full memories of everything, however. One limitation of this concept is that dogs generally can’t describe the specifics of an event, such as what happened, who was present, and what they felt. Also, since dogs have limited language skills, they can’t verbally relay a story about the event to others.
But what happens when dogs try to tell stories? Does the act of telling itself help them remember better? Or does it hinder their attempts to relive the moment?
The Importance of Memory Recall
When dogs try to explain specific events that took place, they often resort to using gestures to convey what transpired. If they fail to accurately reenact the action, they’ll usually repeat themselves until the correct sequence is established. This process helps them become accustomed to performing a certain task. A popular term used to describe this kind of learning is operant conditioning.
Basically, this means that dogs will perform a particular behavior in order to receive a reward for doing so. By repeating the desired response, dogs eventually figure out the right actions to take to get a desirable result. Researchers say that dogs can achieve this type of learning simply by observing other animals.
There’s evidence to support this claim. In 2001, a group of psychologists conducted experiments involving wolves raised in captivity. Their results suggested that wolves are capable of learning through observation alone. After watching experienced wolf pack leaders for years, the subjects were finally released into an enclosure with other wolves.
Within a few minutes, the wolves figured out how to play a game that involved cooperating and competing with each other. At first, the experimental wolves weren’t given any rewards for playing; however, once the alpha female started getting treats while she watched, the rest soon followed suit.
While it’s true that dogs can learn through observation, some argue that dogs are unable to recall specific events, let alone relate them to future ones. To test this hypothesis, psychologist Marc Bekoff ran a series of experiments in 2004 testing whether dogs can remember past events. His tests revealed that dogs can indeed recall specific events in detail and then relate them to similar situations occurring in the future.
For instance, Bekoff observed two groups of dogs — one that knew how to walk on a leash and one that didn’t walking toward a building where he hid treats. Both sets of dogs were given access to the treats, but the untrained dogs couldn’t recall where they’d hidden them afterward. In contrast, the trained dogs went straight to the exact spot where the treats had been stashed.
This proves that dogs can recall specific events, but it doesn’t mean they always do. One explanation for why dogs sometimes forget past events relates to the way they encode memories. Research indicates that dogs tend to record sensory data without much thought regarding context, unlike humans.
We, humans, tend to connect specific feelings and thoughts to a particular location and situation. For example, we might remember a frightening incident with a bully at school, but we won’t remember what class period it occurred in unless we think about it. So, although dogs can remember specific events, it’s possible that they’re less likely to link up emotional responses to them.