Monday, November 28, 2016

Your Dog Remembers What You Did; Breaking Down Artificially Erected Barriers Between Non-Human Animals and Humans

People have a remarkable ability to remember and recall events from the past, even when those events didn't hold any particular importance at the time they occurred. 

The researchers reported in the journal Current Biology on November 23 the evidence that dogs have that kind of "episodic memory" too.

Researchers investigated dogs’ ability to recall human actions in unexpected episodic memory tests. Dogs trained to imitate with the Do as I Do method were tested on their memory of previously demonstrated human actions when they did not expect the memory test. Dogs could imitate, although their memory decayed faster with increased delay.

The study found that dogs can recall a person's complex actions even when they don't expect to have their memory tested.

"The results of our study can be considered as a further step to break down artificially erected barriers between non-human animals and humans," says Claudia Fugazza of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, Hungary. "Dogs are among the few species that people consider 'clever,' and yet we are still surprised whenever a study reveals that dogs and their owners may share some mental abilities despite our distant evolutionary relationship."

This video shows episodic-like memory in dogs (Canis familiaris): Recall of others' actions afterincidental encoding revealed by the do as I do method.
Credit: Claudia Fugazza, Ákos Pogány, and Ádám Miklós / Current Biology 2016

Evidence that non-human animals use episodic-like memory has been hard to come by because you can't just ask a dog what it remembers. In the new study, the researchers took advantage of a trick called "Do as I Do." Dogs trained to "Do as I Do" can watch a person perform an action and then do the action themselves. For example, if their owner jumps in the air and then gives the "Do it!" command, the dog would jump in the air too.

This image shows Claudia Fugazza and her dog demonstrating the Do As I Do Method.

Credit: Mirko Lui

The fact that dogs can be trained in this way alone wasn't enough to prove episodic memory. That's because it needed to be shown that dogs remember what they just saw a person do even when they weren't expecting to be asked or rewarded. To get around this problem, the researchers first trained 17 dogs to imitate human actions with the "Do as I Do" training method. Next, they did another round of training in which dogs were trained to lie down after watching the human action, no matter what it was.

After the dogs had learned to lie down reliably, the researchers surprised them by saying "Do It" and the dogs did. In other words, the dogs recalled what they'd seen the person do even though they had no particular reason to think they'd need to remember. They showed episodic-like memory.

Dogs were tested in that way after one minute and after one hour. The results show they were able to recall the demonstrated actions after both short and long time intervals. However, their memory faded somewhat over time.

The researchers say that the same approach can most likely be used and adapted in a wide range of animal species, to better understand how animals' minds process their own actions and that of others around them.

"From a broad evolutionary perspective, this implies that episodic-like memory is not unique and did not evolve only in primates but is a more widespread skill in the animal kingdom," Fugazza says. "We suggest that dogs may provide a good model to study the complexity of episodic-like memory in a natural setting, especially because this species has the evolutionary and developmental advantage to live in human social groups."

For all those dog owners out there: your dogs are paying attention and they'll remember.

Contacts and sources: 
Joseph Caputo
Current Biology, published by Cell Press

Citation: Current Biology, Fugazza et al.: "Recall of Others' Actions after Incidental Encoding Reveals Episodic-like Memory in Dogs" Current Biology, published by Cell Press 

The authors received funding from the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group, and the project received funding from the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund.

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