Adila’s owner touches the cone for Adila to imitate.
Your dog has a memory. And not just the kind where Snookums wanna cookie? takes on monumental significance. New evidence shows that dogs have the ability to remember a human action and then recreate it after a delay. You read that right: Dogs can learn to do something just by watching their human do it first, even after the passage of time.
So, okay, your dog probably can’t actually remember your misdeeds from summers past. Luckily for you. But deferred imitation and declarative memory are abilities we had previously only ascribed to humans and apes.
To figure out what dogs’ brains are capable of, researchers Claudia Fugazza and Adám Miklósi from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary had owners train their dogs in a method called “Do as I do.” The technique involves teaching dogs an “imitation rule” with familiar actions that can then be generalized to new situations.
Eight dogs (and their owners) were involved in the study. All the dogs were female, ranging in age from 2 to 10 years old. The subjects were comprised of collies, a Shetland sheepdog, a Czechoslovakian wolfdog, a Yorkshire terrier and a mixed breed.
In the study, the dog owner first told their canine to sit. The owner then performed a simple novel task—ringing a bell, for example, or walking around a bucket—that the dog watched. It would be one thing to have the dog perform the same action right away, but the mere ability to immediately imitate an action isn’t what the researchers were studying. Looking at retention span, they wanted to know if dogs could still perform the action after they’d been forced to think about something else for a while.
So dog and owner would go behind a screen for a delay ranging from 40 seconds to 10 minutes, meaning the dog couldn’t keep staring at (and thinking about) that bell or that bucket. Out of sight, out of mind, right? During the delay, the owner “distracted” their dog with some other task, such as playing with a ball.
Once the break ended, the owner took the dog back to the starting point and commanded, “Do it!” And danged if the dog didn’t go ring that bell or walk around that bucket. (At least, some of the dogs, some of the time.) Take a look at the video below to see for yourself.
To avoid what’s known as the Clever Hans Effect, where an animal responds to unconsciously given cues from a human, researchers also had someone other than the owner give the “Do it!” command. Without knowing what the original action was, this other person had no way of accidentally directing the dog. If the dog performed the action, therefore, it was because their doggy brain had retained the information.
The results are pretty impressive. Think about it—in order to imitate ringing a bell, for example, a dog not only has to maintain a mental image of what her owner did, but she has to figure out how ringing a bell with a human hand translates into a doggy body ringing a bell.
The researchers conclude, “The ability to encode and recall an action after a delay implies that the dogs have a mental representation of the human demonstration. In addition, the ability to imitate a novel action after a delay without previous practice suggests the presence of a specific type of long-term memory in dogs. This would be so-called ‘declarative memory,’ which refers to memories which can be consciously recalled, such as facts or knowledge.”
Pick a memory, any memory. Climbing a tree at age 10. The fender-bender you tried to hide from your parents right after you got your license. Walking along a dirt road beside a field of wildflowers under a vivid, kaleidoscopic sunset.