It is not uncommon to find people comparing their dogs with humans. Ever imagined that unlike humans dogs as small puppies never had to learn counting and tables. They were never made to undergo the torture of learning the trigonometry or solve the Pythagorean Theorem. Neither had they had to mug up the history neither dates nor study the complicated physics. All that because dogs are dogs and not human being.
People often boast of the memory of their dog. It is amusing to hear. How much does a dog actually remember and how much is he able to recall from that? Plus how much a dog is able to recollect after seeing a place/person/object?
If you ask me this is the most complex question to answer about dogs. It is very difficult to tell about how the memory of a human brain works and how things are stored. In case of a poor dumb animal like a dog the matter becomes more intricate. But dogs are not so dumb they do have some memory which is more or less similar to the human memory if we try to quantify it. For example, some of us have a phenomenal memory for details and recall phone numbers, people, names etc. Whereas there are others who tend to forget the name of the person to whom they were introduced in the party a few moments ago! Likewise some dogs do have a better memory than others.
In the case of humans it is well established that they retain things they want to and store it in the memory and tend to forget what they do not want to retain. This may be true. But it is certain that there are incidents which leave an indelible mark in the memory and one can recall them vividly at any point of time. For example a person who escapes a train accident may be able to recall the incident in detail after 20 years…!
In other words there are things which we want to retain and store in our memory. However, for dogs the issue can not be generalized with a sweeping statement like this. There are dogs who recall people and places easily even after a gap of four years. While there are other dogs who are not able to recall or recognize a person or a place they saw some time ago.
I will cite a few instances to explain the point. Goldy my favorite Labrador retriever came to me when she was nearly four years old from Hoshiarpur in Punjab. In no time she adjusted in the new household and accepted me as her pack leader. She picked up obedience training to such perfection that she became an obedience Champion within a year. She was previously owned by my mentor Mr. Ramesh Datt.
After a gap of four years I traveled with Goldy to Hoshiarpur. Mr. Ramesh Datt came to the Circuit House where I was putting up. Unexpectedly instead of wagging her tail she barked aloud at him. But when he used his pet phrase of calling her in a particular tone, she recollected and went overboard with joy. Similarly next day I took her to her previous home. It was a Farmhouse some five kilometer from the main town. There were other dogs too in the house. Goldy began to behave weird as we entered the gate. She was growling and had raised her hackles as if anticipating a danger. She did not even look at the door of the kennel where she used to live. She did not wag her tail when her old handler caressed her-she literally ignored him. After entering the room of Mr. Datt and that too after he had again called her in that particular tone that she recalled her past and thereafter she went ran around the place, sniffing at all the kennels, barking joyously and finally sat in front of the door of her kennel-which was now occupied by a burly Great Dane.
This surely indicates that dogs do remember people either through their tone or are able to recollect their faces and show signs of recognition by wagging their tail and or dancing with joy. But it also shows that recalling or recognizing power of dogs is also affected by association of ideas. Goldy failed to recognize her place and people till her memory was triggered by a particular tone of her previous owner.
A neighbor was mortally scared of my dachshund. He used to scare her with a stick. Minty the dachshund began to loath all human being with a stick. Her hatred reached such a stage that a gentleman had to hit her with his stick in self defense. Minty fractured a leg, but I could not protest because she tried to bite him on a sly without any fault of his. Afterwards I never allowed her the liberty of accompanying me out of the house without a leash and all through her life kept on correcting her for her anger for the stick.
Therefore a good or bad association matter a lot to activate the memory of a dog. Yet like people there are dogs that do not seem to remember a thing. For example, Sheeba my Lhasa Terrier bitch refused to go back to her earlier home in Dehradun from where she had come to me at the age of two years. But once she settled there again and I went to meet her she failed to recognize me despite my using the same words and tones with which I used to call her.
The animal psychologists measure the retaining capacity of all kinds of animals by letting them walk through specially designed maize, with food as reward at the other end. After a few repetitions the animals memorise the path and reach their goal in no time. The experts found that an earthworm could recollect the maize for three to four weeks, while a monkey retained it for almost three years. But in case of dogs this simple formula does not work. In a laboratory where a dog is just a specimen to be experimented with, might show completely different results than at home with a family. While living with a family, dog imagines he is living in his natural pack, with a leader. Thus he appears to recall commands with an unflinching memory.
Is it really his memory or his ability to repeat? A dog is a creature of routine. Hence if he is fed at a particular time of the day, he will start salivating merely by the smell of the food at that time. Your dog remembers what time you return from work and waits for you at the door, his nostrils working overtime and ears twitching to catch the sound of your car. He knows from his extra senses that you have parked in the basement, while your wife may be completely oblivious of your arrival in the building. But again all these feats a dog is able to perform because he has a strong and precise biological clock and senses of smell and hearing are extraordinary. Suppose you are sent on a year’s training to some other place. Your dog might wait for you for few days at the door at your usual time. But after a while he will start concentrating on something else. Now adjusted to a different routine, he will not recollect about waiting for you at the door.
Similarly often people think that a dog is able to retrace his way back home he may be having some kind of GPS fitted in his brain, which aids him in his retracing his steps. In reality neither the dog remembers anything about the roads nor does he have a map imprinted in his memory. He recalls his way back via the smells. His uncanny sense of smell aids him in this exercise and he does it to perfection.
A dog performing at the circus or a sniffer dog or a dog becoming an obedience champion may be as intelligent as any other dog. His ability to perform is not related to his intelligence, as it is just a mechanical repetition of what he had been taught and most of it he does to please his master. Dogs being intelligent enough to please the leader make us feel that they have a superior intelligence than other animals. It is not so. But yes they do have enough intelligence to face the odds and have survived the ups and downs all through their 50000 year old association with mankind.
I need not repeat that man being a superior creature stands at the highest pedestal, even in terms of memory. From the childhood he learns to make use of ‘connected thinking’. Thus he is able to connect places, people, and incidents together for his best use. For example if you slap your child and admonish him harshly, next time he will be scared of you, but if you kick your dog in the morning for having soiled your carpet, by evening he would have forgotten the kick. But within their ability dogs also make use of connected thinking. They are able to connect the pleasures of a reward and pains of correction and learn the commands. Their capability in this direction is tremendous. Even if you do not formally train your dog, he trains himself to endear you. He is able to discern soon which of his acts please you and which don’t and behaves accordingly.
Like humans, some dogs do have super senses or I prefer to call them super natural powers. For example, Goldy my Labrador retriever bitch was scared of dark and she learnt of her own how to switch on the lights. She also knew that the bolt on the door has something to do with closing and opening a door and often she bolted me in my room! I have reared several dogs and have been associated with many others; I found no using the electric switch on the wall to switch on the light and that too never in day time. What intrigued me was ‘how she knew which one is the correct switch?’ And what perplexes me now is that how she retained the procedure of switching on the lights?