A Dog Whose Memory Was Too Good

A clever dog can remember too well.

Posted Nov 24, 2008

Just as there is a long standing controversy about whether dogs have a consciousness that is similar to that of people, there is a lot of argument and speculation about the nature, quality and duration of a dog's memory. Ultimately the issue will be solved by psychologists collecting systematic data in a laboratory, however let me give a bit of anecdotal evidence, which, if it is true, seems to bear on the matter.

I was giving some lectures in Belgium, in the city of Ghent, and I had been speaking about how dogs think. After my presentation, when the audience was having coffee and pastries, a woman came over to speak to me.

"I thought that you might be interested in a story my grandfather, Jacob Lasker, used to tell about his dog. It says a lot about how dogs think and remember. The dog was some kind of curly coated cross breed, probably a Poodle or Terrier mix, but it was very clever. Grandpa called him Kraus, which means ‘fuzzy'.

"Jacob was living in Vienna at the time and was a pipe smoker. So for fun, as well as convenience, he trained Kraus to walk down the street with a coin in his mouth and to go into the tobacco shop where he would exchange it for a small package of tobacco. Kraus was sent on this errand several times a week and he became a familiar sight in the neighborhood.

Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

"Eventually Jacob moved to Prague and found a nice little residence not far from a street with a many little shops. One of these was a tobacco store that Grandpa began to use. Then Jacob thought that it might be nice to have Kraus perform his little trick again. So he introduced the dog to the tobacconist and explained to shop owner what he used to do in Vienna. The man was amused and said that he would watch for the dog and exchange the coin he would be carrying for a package of tobacco. The shop keeper gave Kraus a little pat on his head and the dog seemed to understand.

"So the very next day, Jacob put a coin in the dog's mouth and opened the door to let him out. Kraus seemed to know what was expected, and he trotted off in the right direction with his tail wagging. A few hours later, however, the dog had not returned, so Grandpa put on his coat and walked the route that he usually took to the tobacco shop. Unfortunately he was told that Kraus never arrived at the shop and no one remembered seeing him along the street.

"Jacob was worried and concerned. He hoped that Kraus had just become lost in his new neighborhood and would eventually return. He checked with the dog pound to see if he had been picked up, and left a description of Kraus and his address should he turn up, and even if an injured or dead dog that might be him might be found. As the days passed he began to despair of ever seeing his clever dog again.

"According to the story he told, it was on the fourth day after Kraus had gone missing that he heard a familiar scratching at his door. He opened it and there was his dog. He was dusty and the pads on one of his paws had dried blood from an injury. The dog was also a bit shaky and weak, apparently from not eating. Jacob felt a wave of relief and bent down to caress his dog, but when he extended his hand, Kraus dropped a package of tobacco in his hand. Much to my Grandpa's amazement, when he looked at it he saw the familiar label of his tobacconist in Vienna--nearly 120 miles away from Prague! The dog had remembered his task exactly, and had performed it as he had been asked."

While I found this account sufficiently extraordinary so that it strained my credibility as a scientist, the woman who told me the story clearly believed it to be true, so in that spirit I present it to you. It is one of many such stories that suggest that dogs may have better memories and are more resourceful than we have given them credit for.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, How Dogs Think : Understanding the Canine Mind, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome.

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

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