Many years ago, experts in dog psychology maintained that dogs simply do not have the ability to remember things over the long term. Of course, I always doubted this overly-simplistic assessment. Without memories, dogs would never be able to learn, and they certainly would not fear certain people or things for no apparent reason. Now the experts have defined different types of memory as they apply to dogs. My real question is how this knowledge can apply to training a dog.
What the experts say
There are a number of articles available about how dogs remember, but I happen to like an explanation offered in The Daily Puppy. Let’s look at the four types of memory defined in this article and apply it to my favorite informational resource: Monty, the holy terrier:
- Episodic memory involves memories of past events, like what we did yesterday or what we plan to do next week. The experts say dogs live only in the present moment. On the one hand, Monty never seemed concerned when I returned, whether I was absent for ten minutes or many hours. But I still wonder if his initial fear of men came from past episodes of punishment by a man. Since I replaced those memories with good memories of men throwing treats, I like to think there was some sort of episodic memory there. Or maybe it was just a case of procedural memory, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.
- Natural rhythms are sort of what dogs use in place of episodic memory. They are a type of internal clock that told Monty to start bugging me even one minute past 9pm, when he traditionally got his Kong bone. But when we sat quietly together and I had a momentary thought of giving him a bath, he instantly jumped down and went into his crate to hide. How, on earth, did he know what was coming? Still, I believe this type of memory explains why I always found developing a routine to be so important. Both my dogs went to bed with a bedtime routine, and they didn’t start their days until I woke them up, regardless of the time. It made life very easy for our household.
- Spatial memory is active in dogs. They notice when furniture has been moved or the toy supply has been relocated. As Monty got older, I often introduced new “furniture,” such as a step to help him get to the couch. But he did not immediately recognize that step was there for him. He seemed oddly disturbed by its presence, and I actually had to create “step up” and “step down” commands so he would use it. To him, it was always a trick, and it deserved a treat.
- Procedural memory is the big one from a training point of view. The experts say that dogs do not remember training the way we remember lessons in the classroom. It’s all about re-wiring the dogs brain to associate a certain action with a positive outcome, such as praise, a favorite toy or a treat. I like to tell myself that Monty obeyed commands out of respect for me and an eagerness to please. He would sit upon command as well as any time he believed I wanted to see good-boy behavior. But if I held a treat in front of him without saying anything, he cycled through every trick he knew to find the one that would get him that treat, so I suspect the experts are right.
What dog memory means during training
Admittedly, I’m no dog-training expert, but I successfully trained two terriers under the assumption that their memories worked just like mine did. Now I know more about how their special types of memory helped them learn what I taught them. In the end, however, my assumptions worked just fine. I think the bottom line is that patience and consistency work great, no matter how the dog processes each lesson. And maybe you build the strongest bond when you believe you and your dog think alike.