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How Good Is a Dog's Ability to Remember People?

It may be possible for dogs to remember certain people for several years.

Fritz Liess photo - Creative Commons License
Source: Fritz Liess photo - Creative Commons License

"I'm just afraid that Taffy is going to forget us when we're gone. I've been told that dogs' memories are not all that good and it looks like we are going to be gone for nearly two years while she'll be living with my parents."

The woman in her mid to late 20s gently stroked the big golden retriever sitting beside her and I could see the faint gloss of tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

Naomi had been a student in one of my psychology classes quite a while ago. She ultimately got a degree in education. Her husband Cyrus also had a degree in education, but unfortunately for both of them, permanent teaching jobs were hard to find in the Vancouver area. With both of them working only as substitute teachers, the family's income was limited.

Then, she and her husband got an offer to teach in an English immersion program in China. The salary was very good and their living accommodations would be provided free. This was an opportunity for the two of them to accumulate some savings, perhaps enough to put a down payment on a house or a condo in Vancouver's overheated real estate market when they returned.

The only restrictions that came with the job were that all of the instructors had to live in the compound area for the duration of their contract, which was two years in length (less two months in accumulated vacation time). This meant that she would be away from her dog for 22 months and she was worried that the two-year-old dog would not recognize her when she returned and all of the affection and bonding that they now had would be lost.

Although I would've liked to provide her with some experimental data, I had none to give her. It is, perhaps, not surprising that canine behavioral scientists have not explored just how well dogs remember and recognize people over the long term.

The reasons have to do with practicality. Nobody wants to be separated from their dog for a long period of time simply to answer a scientist's questions about their dog's memory.

Furthermore, even if people associated with the investigation are introduced to the dog and live with it for a short while before an experimentally arranged separation period, that is not the same thing as being separated from an owner that the dog has lived with for several years in intimate circumstances.

Finally, to answer the really interesting questions, the separation period should not be measured in days or weeks but rather over periods of a year or two. Of course, all of this means that to set up experiments to measure the ability that a dog has to remember people is difficult, and to my knowledge, no such studies have been conducted.

For this reason, scientists have had to resort to anecdotal data. Stories of a dog remembering an owner after separation of a year or more are fairly common, and often quite touching. Perhaps the earliest of these appears in Homer's Odyssey when the Greek hero Odysseus returns home in disguise, after 10 years of wandering following the Trojan War. The only one who recognizes him is his old hound dog Argus who he had reared from puppyhood (click here for more on that).

Rather than telling her a tale from Greek mythology, I tried to assure Naomi that the likelihood that Taffy would remember her really has to do, in part, with how strong a bond the dog has with her and her husband. Fortunately, they had lived with Taffy since she was a puppy. In humans, it is the early memories that tend to be the strongest and there is no reason to believe that that is not the case for dogs. That alone might suggest that Taffy's memory for Naomi and Cyrus was likely to be strong and durable. I then went on to tell her about one case which I was well acquainted with.

The incident which I told her about had to do with Stephen Birch of Norfolk, Virginia. Stephen was a bit more than 70 years of age when he told me his story. His dog was a black and tan coonhound named Flannel.

He had to leave Flannel behind when he joined the Army at the beginning of World War II. Flannel was three years old when Stephen left and he was nearly 10 years old when he finally returned. As I remember it, Stephen and I were sitting on his front porch and he was stroking Flannel's great-grandson in much the same way that Naomi had been stroking Taffy. He looked off into the distance as he recalled this bit of personal history.

Flannel was a neat dog. He got his name because his ears felt just like Flannel. He was my first coon hound and we spent a lot of time together. Whenever he thought that we would be going out for a walk, or to play, or just down to the garage where I worked, he would do this little dance where he would spin around, bouncing on his front feet, and then make this ‘woo-woo’ sound. If I had been away from home for awhile, he would do the same dance when I walked into the door. It wasn’t just being excited, ‘cause he would only do that for me. I used to think of it as his way of saying he liked me and expected me to do something nice for him.

Anyway, it was around 1941 when I last saw him—before they sent me for training and then shipped me out to North Africa and later to Italy. When the war ended they started to send people back home, but I was assigned to take charge of a prisoner of war camp there, and that really delayed my release from the service. It was 1948 when I finally got to come back home.

Mom and Dad knew that I was traveling, but not when I would arrive, so when I got to shore and was offered a ride home, I thought that I would surprise them. When I walked up to the door and opened it, there was Flannel. He was obviously a lot older then, with gray on his muzzle—although his ears still felt soft like flannel. He saw me, and it was just like no time had passed. He did his little dance and sounded off with that ‘woo-woo’ song of his.

Mom was in the kitchen and didn’t know I had walked in. When Flannel sang that little song, she called out, ‘What’s gotten into you Flannel? Steve’s not here yet but you act like you know that he’s coming.’

She later told me that Flannel had not done his dance or ‘woo-woo’ in the whole time that I was gone. But he clearly remembered me, because he started doing it immediately after I came home, and he continued to do it every day for me until he died. That little ‘woo-woo’ told me that I was home again and that someone remembered me—had missed me—and still loved me.

After I told Naomi about Stephen and Flannel, I pointed out to her that Stephen was separated from his dog for close to seven years, while she and Cyrus were only going to be away from Taffy for a bit less than two years. I pointed out that she had spent a lot of time with her dog and had established a strong bond. I said to her that I was reasonably confident that when they returned, Taffy would be there to greet them enthusiastically and show them that she remembered.

Naomi leaned her head against the head of the big blonde dog and the tears were now clearly visible in her eyes as she whispered to Taffy, "You are as smart as any old coonhound, so you've got to remember us." Taffy responded by licking some of the tears off of her cheeks.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books, including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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