When it comes to memory, you know your wife never forgets a thing. Yet information seems to sieve out of your brain as fast as you put it in there. But what about your pets? When training a new skill, it seems like Fido forgets everything he’s learned once the treat box goes away, and the next session you’re back at square one. Yet dogs who experience trauma can seem to never be able to move past what it was that first frightened them. Though progress can be made, many suffer with lifelong effects from a one-time experience. All of this leaves you wondering about the actual length of your dog’s memory.
The Difference Between Memory and Imprinting
Dogs have both long term and short term memory much like their human counterparts. They are capable of retaining both positive and negative experiences which aid them in navigating life. Dogs also associate sounds, sights, and other things with past occurrences even if the result is not the same. These associations can begin to permanently affect adult behavior in our dogs.
The first twelve weeks of a puppy’s life is a critical socialization period. Conscientious breeders devote a great deal of time and attention to the raising of their puppies. Events that transpire during these early weeks become imprinted on a puppy for life thus shaping their personality and behavior. Taking the time to introduce new and potentially fearful noises and sights to a baby puppy at the appropriate time and far under the threshold can help a puppy to learn that things like the vacuum cleaner and a hair dryer are just a normal part of every day life, and nothing to be afraid of. Care must be taken to do this at the correct socialization window otherwise the opposite effect could occur, leaving a puppy with a lifelong fear of the vacuum cleaner.
Things that take place during these first twelve weeks of a puppy’s life form an imprint that the puppy will then take forward with them for the rest of their lives. It cannot be overstated the importance of the role a quality, reputable breeder plays, particularly during these most vital few weeks of life. Who a puppy will become in life is largely the result of what and how a breeder exposes the pup to new things during these initial twelve weeks. During this time, a puppy is a sponge capable of learning more new things and retaining them than at any other time in their life. While a dog can learn new skills, something that is imprinted on a dog will remain with them as long they live.
Your Dog and Memory
Dogs largely navigate their world by their sense of smell. Since the canine olfactory sense is far more powerful than that of human scent detection, a familiar fragrance that is only faintly detectable to a dog can trigger intense emotional reactions. Scent is one of the primary means that a dog identifies people, particularly if it has been a long time since the dog has seen the person.
A dog’s sense of smell plays an undeniable role in memory. This goes hand in hand with the concept of association. If you had a neighbor who hated your dog and shrieked at him every opportunity he got, your dog would begin to associate the scent of the neighbor with his actions. Consequently, if you and your dog run into your neighbor at the dog park, your dog is likely to have a negative reaction to him based purely on his scent. Fido has come to associate your neighbor with negative feelings. His memory tells him the neighbor is a bad person, one to be avoided, and Fido will react accordingly to what his scent memory tells him. Memories triggered by smells form part of your dog’s long term memory.
On the converse side is short term memory which is what is initially used when training a new skill. Since short term memory by nature is not permanent, it has to be reinforced and repeated for it to ever move from the realm of the temporary to the firmly fixed.
Today, there are a variety of dog training methods. Some rely on what is called negative punishment. This is simply a means of giving the dog an unpleasant consequence for wrong behavior. However, this is not an effective means to properly train a dog. Since most dogs naturally seek to please their owners, positive reinforcement is a far preferable training tool. Positive reinforcement can be achieved using a clicker and treats or simply a word used to “mark” a behavior which is then rewarded with food and lavish praise. When training using this method, you are asking your dog to focus on two things: the new skill and his reward. However, the reward is a far more powerful motivator than anything you will ask him to do. Since dogs will offer behaviors in the hopes that one will hit the target of what you are looking for, it is important to demonstrate and name the skill you are seeking then to repeat the training exercise in order to gain consistency. This often will not happen in one session. Your dog may appear to offer the behavior at the sound of the command word in one day’s work, but you may find that he has forgotten everything when you request the same action the next day. This is normal canine behavior. Training starts in the short term memory quadrant. It takes repetition and consistency over days, weeks, and sometimes even months for a skill to progress to long term memory.
So, in essence your dog is capable of several types of memory. Short term memory is memory that lasts for a very brief period of time and must be reinforced and repeated to advance to long term memory. Long term memory is comprised of learned behaviors and associations. Finally, there is imprinting which takes place during the first twelve weeks of a puppy’s life and ultimately helps to formulate who and what he will become. Why not stretch Fido’s brain and his memory by trying some training games today?