Memory Master

Memory Master

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Canines have incredible memories. It is a powerful part of cognition. And just like in humans, there are different kinds of memory in dogs. In this episode, Dr. Hare chats with a top expert in the field of canine cognition who specifically studies memory in man’s best friend.



Dr. Evan MacLean

Assistant Professor at the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

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Brian Hare: “DogSmarts” is brought to you by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a breakthrough in pet nutrition created to nourish a dog’s mind. Is your dog’s food feeding your dog’s brain? Discover more at

Canines and humans are not just connected by companionship. In fact, we are evolutionarily linked and tied together by something far more complex—our brains.

Join me as we take a peek into the inner workings of the canine brain through the lens of human cognition. With a mix of stories and interviews from leading psychologists, anthropologists, veterinarians, and dog owners, we’re going to tackle questions of memory, word learning, nutrition, and even love.

I’m Brian Hare, Founder of Dognition, and Professor at Duke University in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Welcome to “Dog Smarts”.

BH: Today we’re going to talk about something we don’t really notice until it isn’t working anymore – and that’s memory.

Even trickier, we’re going to talk about memory in dogs, which is hard because dogs can’t tell you what they remember. Luckily, I have with me one of the top experts in canine cognition who happens to study, among many other things, memory in dogs.

Evan McLean: Hi, I’m Evan McLean I’m an Assistant Professor in the school of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

BH: Evan, great to talk to you. One of the things that I think people often aren't familiar with when they hear the word cognition is the idea that there really are different types ­ and memory is a wonderful example of this. Are there different kinds of memory in dogs?

EM: Certainly, there are lots of studies looking at dog memory there are great studies looking at short term memory and this is the kind of memory that if you see something hidden in one of two places you don't need to remember this years later but for the time in between the time you see it hidden and the time you go search for it you can keep a short term representation of this in mind. And dogs have very good short term memory so they can remember things they saw moments ago fairly well.

BH: Better than cats?

EM: Well there's some evidence to suggest that that's true.

BH: So you just said dogs are smarter than cats you know that every cat owner is sending you an email right now.

EM: Yeah, as someone who has run a lot of these memory experiments with dogs, it’s amazing because it seems like that two minutes 120 seconds is not a long time but there have been so many times where we're playing memory games and you know we hide a reward in one of multiple places and we sit waiting the 2 minutes for the dog to make a choice and the dog goes to search and they pick one of the multiple options we don't know whether to tell them they're right or wrong because we've totally forgotten so we have to pick up the cup that it’s hidden underneath and say is there food in there oh yeah good job, good job doggy.

BH: So, 120 seconds can be a long time.

EM: It can be a very long time.

BH: We’ll be back with more DogSmarts... I’m Brian Hare.

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Welcome back to DogSmarts. I’m Brian Hare.

BH: Short term memory captures events in the immediate past. It’s sort of like seeing where an item is hidden and remembering that it is there for a few seconds before searching for it. These are relatively transient memories. They’re important for healthy cognitive functioning, but unfortunately they can start to decline as a dog gets old dogs and it may lead to confusion.

Dogs also have long term memory. They can store lots of different kinds of memory on the scale of minutes to years. So think about a family member who travels far away and is gone for several years. Your dog’s long term memory is what allows them to remember that person when they come home.

BH: What about different types you were going to tell me maybe that there is evidence for different types of memory. What about the A not B task?­ Have you ever played that with dogs? What does that tell us?

EM: Yeah sure. So this is an interesting task it has a component of memory and a component of self control. So the way that the task works is that there are two places you can hide a reward for the animal, and what you do initially you begin by hiding the reward in one place and you do this in view of the animal, so it's very simple - you have a cup on the left and cup on right and say you hid food in cup on the left and you do this over and over and all that has to happen is the dog has to see you hide the food there, and then they have to go search in that location. It's easy as can be it's a basic memory game. But then what happens is suddenly you switch where you're hiding the food, so now on one trial, suddenly, you show the dog the food and place it in the cup on the right, so this should be very very easy thing they see where the food is they know it's on the right, but what happens is this is where kind of procedural memory can get in the way because they’ve establish this habit.

BH: So I type A, A, A, A, then suddenly you show me the correct answer is B, and the question is, do I keep typing A, or can I switch to B?

EM: That’s right and it’s actually a beautiful example of how there can be these different aspects of cognition working against each other because the dog has an updated representation of where the food is - they've now clearly seen it on the right that they have this habitual response that they have to inhibit and so you have different kinds of cognition working against each other in this situation.

BH: Dogs also have procedural memory. That’s essentially a kind of memory for motor patterns – or how a dog moves through space. It’s kinda of like how you remember how to ride your bike. It’s something that the dog remembers and can do based on past experiences. And these kinds of memories ­- they’re important in all aspects of a dog’s life. Think about an agility competition where dogs have to move through space in so many different ways, that’s procedural memory at work there.

So, do dogs have different kinds of memory? Absolutely. Short term, long term, procedural memory, all of these are things that dogs experience and use to solve problems.

Many thanks to Evan MacLean, Assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

‘Dog Smarts’ is produced by Panoply Custom Studios, and is sponsored by Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a breakthrough in pet nutrition created to nourish a dog’s mind. Discover more at

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