Evidence that non-human animals have some form of episodic memory is difficult to obtain because you can’t ask animals what they remember. So in the recent study, a group of dogs were trained to repeat an action demonstrated by a human trainer. For example, if the model jumped in the air and gave the dog the command “Do it!”, the dog was supposed to reproduce the same action as observed. And they did.
More than association
Further experiments showed that the dogs remembered the actions even when they were not expecting to be rewarded for the “imitation”. The animals were not simply learning to memorise associations between an action performed by an actor and their behavioural response because they wanted to be rewarded. This was the first time, as far as we can tell, that animals other than primates have been shown to remember events.
Exactly how long dogs can remember things for, however, is not clear. We don’t have evidence that dogs can remember events months or even days after they have happened, like humans can. One recent study that compared the memory capabilities of 25 different animals even suggested that dogs’ short-term memory for information was limited to just a couple of minutes.
Still, this was much better than the average time for all the animals in the study, which was just 27 seconds. Chimpanzees had a short-term memory of just 20 seconds. Compared to most animals, dogs do seem to have a particular knack for remembering things. So perhaps dog owners are right to swear by their pets’ intelligence.