Have you seen the viral animal videos of a human and their close animal friend meeting up after a long while, maybe after years of separation? These videos make you tear up even before you press play, since the reunions are most often quite touching.
As I was researching this topic, I read an article called “Do Dogs Forget Their People?” by journalist Daniel Kolitz. The article was published online in September 2018 on Gizmodo Australia. The article asked if dogs can forget a familiar human if they’re separated for a long enough time. Here are a few selected excerpts from the article.
Kolitz’s piece includes thoughts from multiple animal experts about this topic that is supported by dog owners’ personal experiences and anecdotes. You have probably heard of Greyfriars Bobby, the Scottish Skye Terrier that waited on his owner’s grave for 14 years? People from Konrad Lorenz to Charles Darwin have described how their dogs have remembered them even after a long period of separation.
Nowadays we’re familiar with videos of soldiers returning home to reunite with their dogs. These stories and videos support the idea of dogs remembering the people they’re attached to clearly and strongly. We should remember, however, that these are the stories that easily get attention. What’s interesting about a situation where the dog doesn’t remember? You probably won’t upload that video online.
There’s no research about dog’s memory that would give a conclusive answer to this question. However, excluding Alzheimer-like neurological diseases, expert statements lean towards our dogs probably remembering us. Remembering and recognising familiar people over years requires so-called episodic or autobiographical memory that records an individual’s personal experiences. Researching this memory in animals is challenging. Memory of autobiographical events is evaluated for example based on the dog’s behavior. On many of these videos you seem to really see the dog recalling the memory, from their nose to the tip of the tail!
The longevity of olfactory memories is one of the reasons forgetting is considered unlikely. Associating the human with a certain place can also aid the memory. Animals generally form long-term memories from events that are meaningful to them – pleasant or unpleasant. This applies to humans as well. Casual acquaintances might not make a lasting impression.
This article also taught me that social species such as dogs form memories of other creatures more easily. Cats may also remember for example their first owner, but the emotions related to the memory aren’t as easily visible in their body language as it is for dogs.
Though the idea of your dog not remembering you might feel sad, forgetting has benefits too. It’s beneficial for both us and the dogs that they adapt to new situations well. The article ends in Clive Wynne reminding us that dogs may form very strong bonds to humans even if they meet at a later stage in life. Anyone offering a home for an older dog doesn’t need to worry – they can attach to humans just as strongly as puppies.