Dogs may remember actions other people — not just themselves — have performed

By Alex Heigl
November 30, 2016 01:48 PM

Good news for any dog owner who’s long been convinced their own pet may have one up on a significant other, friend or family in terms of intelligence.

Researchers at Budapest’s Eotvos Lorand University have established a project to plumb the depths of canine intelligence, specifically by looking at the animals’ memory. Obviously, it’s been established that dogs can be trained to remember commands, names objects, people and places. But Family Dog Project (the name needs some workshopping) leader Claudia Fugazza and her colleagues are testing the boundaries of dog’s “episodic-like memory.”

Using a fairly self-explanatory form of training called “Do-as-I-do training,” trainers worked with dogs to copy actions they performed after the command “do it,” like touching an umbrella. Then they trained dogs to lie down on a mat as a response to a new action by the trainer. The last step involved creating a new action, and then taking the dog behind a screen and waiting a moment, after which they gave the “do it” command again.

The positive outcome — and the one that has the researchers suggesting your pooch is smarter than you think — was that the dogs remembered an event they hadn’t been concentrating on at the moment. From the outcome, they suggest that dogs remember actions other people — not just themselves — have performed. And most crucially, they remember even when “it may seem irrelevant to them,” i.e., when they haven’t been trained to expect a treat as a reward for performing said action.

Episodic memory suggests a high level of intelligence because it’s useful in an adaptive sense: Remembering the actions of others is a smart way, evolutionarily, to adapt to complex environments with a variety of stimuli. Other research has suggested that animals as wide-ranging as rats, chimpanzees and pigeons have episodic-like memory, and Jonathon D. Crystal of Indiana University, who’s studied the phenomenon in rats, suggests that studying it in animals is a good way to understand how to combat the loss of episodic memory in humans in the case of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.