This article was updated on January 30th, 2023
As dog owners, we never forget the day we first laid eyes on our pet. Their adorable wiggles. Big brown eyes full of love. Yes, there’s nothing sweeter than the memory of meeting a puppy for the first time. But what about dogs themselves? Do they remember us? How far back do their memories go?
To find out, let’s look at the experience of a dog named Mia…
Dogs can get separated from their owners for many reasons. In Mia’s case, the cause happened to be a car crash in Colorado. Mia was missing for an entire month, but her memory helped her get reunited with her owners: she remembered where the accident took place and returned to the crash site regularly, and eventually immediately recognized her owner when they finally crossed paths.
Any dog owner will tell you that dogs can certainly remember people for a long time – but for how long exactly do dogs remember people? And who do dogs actually remember. For example, is the mailman the same as you or me? Today on Senior Tail Waggers, let’s learn!
Do Dogs Remember People?
In a nutshell, yes: dogs can remember people for several years. Humans play a huge role in most dogs’ lives, so it should come as no surprise that dogs remember the people who love, feed, play with, and care for them.
Watch this reunion of a dog with their owner after almost 2 years of separation:
How Long Do Dogs Remember People?
This next question is trickier.
The exact length of time during which a dog can remember a person is unknown and may be dependent on the dog in question, but hundreds of long-awaited reunions between dogs and owners show indeed that a dog’s memory of people can span years.
We asked our Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Janet Cutler, PhD, about how long dogs remember people for. She explained, “We don’t have any good research yet on the length of time that dogs remember people. It is generally assumed that memories associated with very positive or negative experiences last longer in memory, as they do in humans. If you search online, you can see videos of dogs very excitedly greeting members of their human family that they haven’t seen for years, so we do know anecdotally that it can last a long time.”
So, the happier your dog, the more good memories their brain will hold onto.
Do Dogs Remember People Through Sight, Sound or Smell?
Unlike us, dogs cannot flip through a photo album. Nor can they “talk” and reminisce about past events and memories. Instead, dogs use their senses. Various studies back up the fact that dogs are capable of identifying individuals by sight, sound, and smell. But it is mostly through smell and sound that dogs will remember people.
Janet Cutler confirms “studies have shown that the scent of familiar people can activate the caudate nucleus in the brain which is associated with positive relationships, and this isn’t seen to the same degree with the scent of unfamiliar people or even familiar dogs.”
Amazingly, scent-detection dogs have even longer-term odor memories – one year or more. Wow!
Sniff Sniff. The Way You Smell Will Help a Dog Remember You.
Imagine the most pleasant aroma you can. Maybe it was a lilac bush at your grandmother’s house. Or the smell of hotdogs sizzling over a fire at the family campsite. These scents no doubt trigger memories. And science shows it is even more important for dogs.
A study using vanilla was carried out. Researchers wanted to see if after performing a spatial learning task in a room with vanilla perfume, would the canine test subjects remember where rewards were, based on scent alone? Could the scent of apple vs. vanilla affect their memory?
Turns out, they certainly did. Twenty-four hours later, the dogs successfully remembered the spots where the rewards had been, showing evidence that – like humans – dogs have odor-evoked memory.
Which People Do Dogs Remember Best?
To give a concrete example, picture two friends. Every time one person comes to visit, they bring your pooch biscuits. But the other friend totally ignores your dog. Months pass, and this is always the same. Who do you suppose the dog remembers best?
The “biscuit giver” of course!
That’s because dogs have episodic-like memories. AKA, frequent and positive experiences will help a dog remember a person. The way their brain works also means that any scary or anxiety-inducing experiences (like visiting the vet) will be more memorable, too.
Do Dogs Remember Their Parents or Siblings?
Little research has been done to test the strength and clarity regarding whether or not dogs remember parents and littermates. Despite this, there are plenty of stories about dogs becoming ecstatic when reunited, even after months or years. Surely, you have seen videos of “lost dog” reunions or adult dogs meeting old littermates with wagging tails. This was the case for Lilly, Blue, & Lulu.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that maybe, just maybe, the strong bonds formed during a puppy’s development somehow become a sort of unconscious memory.
Do Dogs Remember Other Dogs?
Oh yes. Absolutely. Dogs don’t have to be family to remember each other. Dogs may remember particular individuals who they have had impactful experiences with or have engaged with regularly. Dogs’ specific scents also help them remember each other.
So, the next time your pooch is busy sniffing in circles, don’t rush them. They are building memories.
Some Dogs Can Remember Up to 1,000 Objects.
The American Kennel Club recommends all dogs learn at least these 5 commands: come, sit, down, stay, and loose leash walking. But highly intelligent dogs (like Poodles and Collies) can remember dozens of commands, often in just a few weeks.
Believe it or not, one dog named Chaser was able to remember the names of 1022 different objects. Chaser learned the names of all these objects over a 3-year period. To see an outstanding example of a dog’s memory, check out videos of Chaser in action (and make sure your dog is taking notes).
Dogs can create associative memories, which is why your dog may get excited every time you pick up their leash. They remember last time you picked up their leash they went for a walk and are assuming that association is still relevant.
Just like any muscle in the body, the brain needs to be well-nourished and exercised to maintain function as your pet ages.
Three ways to keep your dog’s mind in tiptop shape include:
- Practice old tricks
- Learning new ones
- Engage in puzzle solving
Getting older is a fact of life. As the old saying goes, ““Do not regret growing older, it is a privilege denied to many.”
As we age, our brains tend to work slower and retain less. The same effects of aging can be seen in our canine companions. In severe cases, senior dogs may even forget where they are and act out of character – think Alzheimer’s. This could be a condition known as canine cognitive dysfunction and any severe or sudden loss of memory should be assessed by a veterinarian.
As dogs age, free radicals damage the brain eventually leading to complications like decreased memory. Antioxidant-rich foods can combat those free radicals and docosahexaenoic acid, a long-chain fatty acid, can help the brain function properly as it ages. Another useful supplement includes medium-chain triglycerides, which provide your old dog’s brain with an energy source that may be more suitable for older dogs.
Good memory-boosting dog foods are: fish, spinach, blueberries, and sweet potatoes.
Remember, our Senior Tail Waggers team always recommends verifying any major diet changes with your veterinarian first!
Disclaimer: This website's content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your veterinarian for healthcare decisions. Read More.