Bad news for animal lovers committed to the pursuit of carnal pleasures in front of their canine friends: Your dog is watching you, and probably remembers what you're doing.
New research from the Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary finds that dogs have much greater memory recall than previously imagined. Their findings have the potential to bring about a paradigm shift in how we understand the intelligence of non-human animals, particularly dogs.
"What we learnt is that dogs have episodic memory," explains Dr Claudia Fugazza, who led the research team. She explains that episodic memory is a type of memory that remembers events that weren't believed to be important at the moment of encoding.
In humans, episodic memory might relate to what you had for breakfast yesterday morning, or a chance encounter with someone you didn't expect to meet again in future. Typically, it's a type of memory that decays fast. Most people struggle to remember what they had for breakfast yesterday, because it's unimportant and trivial—our memory doesn't assign it much consequence.
Testing episodic memory in a dog is difficult, for the obvious reason that animals don't speak human. "As we couldn't ask dogs a question, their behavior needed to provide the answer to that question," Fugazza explains. Her team trained the dogs to imitate human actions, like jumping in the air. By putting a gap between the demonstration of the action (the human jumping), and the command to imitate (the dog jumping), the dog has to rely on its memory to recall the action.
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"So we can test the dog's memory of the human action, but as we're testing episodic memory, the test needs to be unexpected," Fugazza goes on. "If the dog expects that it will be required to imitate the move later, then it will require on its semantic memory and won't need to mentally travel back in time to recall the demonstration."
In order to make the test unexpected, it was necessary to modify the expectations of the dogs. "The dogs would expect a command to imitate, but we'd give it a command to lie down. Then they'd expect another lie down command, but we'd give them a command to imitate. We found out that they could remember how to respond to the different commands, although their memory decayed when we tested them with varying time delays."
Fugazza explains this is the first evidence of episodic-like memory in dogs, and it is significant because the test took place in conditions that were similar to real life, as opposed to in laboratories. "We tested dogs living with their families, so we could really test memories of everyday life events," she says. While other animals have exhibited episodic-like memory in laboratory conditions—like chimpanzees and rats—these tests didn't examine memories of complex memories that resemble real life.
"This is a step towards bringing down the artificially erected barriers between humans and other animals," Fugazza argues. In essence, dogs have a much greater awareness of our shared world than any of us truly understood. "Episodic memory is linked to self-awareness," Fugazza explains, "and at present it is not known if dogs are self-aware or not. I think we might be a little step closer to being able to answer those questions."
I ask how long dogs might remember seemingly inconsequential acts. "We cannot exclude that dogs remember these memories for longer delays than those we tested," Fugazza tells me. Meaning that your dog might remember all sorts of things you've been up to—like that time last summer it bounded in on some unexpected sexy-time. Might be time to start keeping the bedroom door closed, after all.