Why Dogs Are More Self-Aware Than You Think: Study Uncovers Canine 'Episodic Memories'

dog memory study self aware
The dogs Bonzo and MacGregor walk in the snow in Redenham, England, December 29, 2010. A study suggests dogs recall experiences in a similar way to humans. Creative Commons

If you've ever wondered what your dog is thinking about, the answer may be more complex than you might imagine. A study has found that dogs remember past events in a similar way to humans, suggesting our canine companions may be more self aware than previously thought.

Researchers from the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest found that dogs draw on "episodic memory," rather than "semantic memory."

Episodic memory is defined by the study's authors as memory of personal events and specific episodes in one's life. This means dogs can recall past experiences that might not have been particularly eventful or meaningful at the time, allowing them to associate emotions to places and prior times of their lives.

This type of memory is linked to self-awareness—the ability to distinguish oneself as a separate and individual entity—something the researchers claim has never been studied in dogs before.

In contrast, semantic memory is formed from facts and rules that are learnt by an animal in order to survive.

The study, published in Current Biology, saw 17 dogs trainedto copy an action performed by a human. The "Do as I Do" exercise involved an element of surprise by requiring the dogs to recall the test at an unexpected time, thus proving that the memories formed were episodic.

"Dogs offer an ideal model to study episodic memory in non-human species, and this methodological approach allows investigating memory of complex, context-rich events," the study states.

"These findings show that dogs recall past events as complex as human actions even if they do not expect the memory test, providing evidence for episodic-like memory."

Previous episodic memory tests in other species have suggested primates, rats and pigeons may also form memories in this way, although such studies only involved simple stimuli and were not conducted in a real-life setting.