Dogs Have Observational Spatial Memory Like Humans, Scientists Confirm

Despite your best efforts to hide away your dog's favorite treats, it may still figure out where you put them.

Both dogs and wolves are capable of finding food hidden by a human if they watched them hide it, according to new research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

This indicates that dogs and wolves remembered where the human hid the food, rather than relying solely on their smell to track down the treats.

dog food
Stock image of a dog hunting for food. Researchers have found that dogs and wolves are better at finding hidden food if they saw it being put away, indicating they are capable of social learning. ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

In the experiments, the researchers tested the ability of nine timber wolves and eight mongrel dogs to find four, six or eight hidden stores—or caches—of food, both after observing a human hiding it and not observing the storing process.

They found that both found the first five caches more quickly and with less searching if they had watched the food being hidden than if they hadn't.

"We found that both wolves and dogs retrieved more caches and were more efficient for the first few caches if they observed the hiding than in the control condition, suggesting that they did not simply rely on scent to find the rewards," the authors wrote in the paper.

This research reveals that dogs and wolves are capable of observational spatial memory, a form of social learning, which is when an animal learns via watching another animal, or by interacting with the animal. This behavior is a marker of intelligence in an animal and has been observed in a variety of species.

This observational spatial memory, or "the ability to remember the location of food caches made by others after having observed the hiding process," as the authors describe it in the paper, requires the animal to be able to utilize object permanence skills, being able to remember items that are out of view. It has been observed in several corvid species, including ravens, jackdaws, and pinyon jays.

It is possible that the dogs and wolves were also relying on their sense of smell to find the food.

dog looking food
Stock image of a dog sniffing out food. ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

"Although it is clear that the animals benefited from the demonstrations, we cannot conclude that all food items found in the test sessions were remembered from the hiding process as also indicated by the fact that later caches were not recovered faster in the test than control trials," the authors wrote.

"The fact that we found high retrieval rates in the control trials support the conclusion that also odor cues were used to find the caches."

Both dogs and wolves got increasingly better at finding the hidden food as the experiment went on.

"Not surprisingly, the wolves and the dogs improved their efficiency in retrieving caches over the course of the experiment. While they were rather good at finding four caches from the beginning on, they achieved a similar success rate with the eight caches in the later trials with increasing experience, the authors wrote.

"These results show that both wolves and dogs remained motivated to look for caches throughout the experiment, and indicate that over time, they developed a better search strategy."

Stock image of a group of grey wolves. ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

The authors also found that the wolves were more effective at finding the hidden food, both when they saw the hiding process and when they didn't.

"Interestingly, wolves outperformed dogs irrespective of whether the caching could be observed or not. We suggest that this result is due to a difference in motivation/persistence between wolves and dogs rather than observational spatial memory," the authors wrote in the paper.

This may be because of the altering of traits in dogs during domestication, including persistence and food-related motivation.

"While domestication probably affected dogs' willingness to adjust to humans, the results of the current study collaborate previous findings suggesting that cognitive abilities do not differ very much between dogs and wolves," the authors wrote.

"In conclusion, our results corroborate our hypothesis that both wolves and dogs possess OSM (observational spatial memory) and that wolves and dogs differ in other traits such as persistency and motivation to try to solve food-related challenges."

Do you have a tip on a science story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about dog intelligence? Let us know via

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts