Are Early Memories Stronger Than Later Memories in Dogs?

As dogs age their earlier memories seem to become stronger than recent ones

Posted Mar 26, 2019

I had just finished teaching an hour-long beginners dog obedience class and had tucked Ranger, who was serving as my demonstration dog, into his kennel. My students and their dogs were filing out of the hall, and the students for the next class were entering while their instructor, Susan, readied the room for them. I took a moment to greet some of the incoming people and dogs, and then noticed a woman, who was not enrolled in this session, leading an older Beagle into the hall.

I didn't recognize the woman at first, but the Beagle was a distinctive yellow and white and it seemed familiar to me. Then I remembered that this dog had been trained in one of my classes quite a long time ago. I even remembered the dog's name, because there had been a bit of a controversy between the woman and her husband over it. She wanted to name it "Lemon Drop" because of its unique colors, but her husband had objected to having a two-word name for the dog and so they compromised and named her "Candy". Of course, I couldn't remember the woman's name.

The woman, who introduced herself as Eva, greeted me and reminded me that Candy had been in my class nearly 10 years ago. She then said, "I dropped by because I have a question that you might be able to answer. I was wondering whether the memories that dogs form when they are young are stronger than the memories which they form later.

"I've been thinking about memory quite a bit since last year my husband's mother moved in with us. She is in her eighties and is beginning to show a tinge of memory loss, maybe even the beginnings of some kind of dementia. She remembers lots of details about things that happened when she was a child or in her teens but has difficulty remembering events from a week or even just a few days ago. Her doctor says that this is a typical age-related change, where the individual's earlier memories remain strong, while memories that were formed later become weaker.

"That brings me to my question about dogs since I am wondering if the same thing goes for their memories. The reason I'm concerned about it is because of a change in Candy's behavior. She's now 11 years old, which I understand is getting rather old for a Beagle. I don't know if you remember, but when we were taking your class and she was less than one year old, she had a bit of a behavior problem. Specifically, she developed a fixation for old dirty socks or any small pieces of clothing that she happened to find on the floor. She would snatch them up, and then run to her dog bed and lay there chewing holes in the cloth. You helped us solve the problem by changing the game for Candy. We ultimately taught her that if she found any clothing on the floor and brought it directly to us (rather than chewing it to pieces) she would get a nice dog treat. That solved the problem, and not only did she no longer destroy clothing, but she would help gather up any dropped items that she came across.

"Unfortunately, now that she is considerably older, she has suddenly regressed and has now, once again, begun to gather socks and similar items. Just like when she was just out of puppyhood, she now takes the found bits of clothing to her bed and destroys them. I was wondering if this might be something like what I have been observing in my mother-in-law. The sock-chewing was part of Candy's early life and memories, and I was wondering if that behavior has reappeared because early memories become stronger than later memories in dogs."

I bent down to pet the little yellow and white dog who approached me in the typical happy, sociable, manner of all Beagles. Meanwhile, I explained to Eva that she had posed an interesting question, but it was one which might be very difficult to test experimentally in a laboratory. At that moment I certainly could not think of any relevant scientific data which could answer her question.

However, as I continued to speak to her it suddenly dawned upon me that I had encountered a case study which might shed some light on the issue. I had come across this case when I was organizing material for the revised edition of my book The Intelligence of Dogs. It was while I was working on a chapter describing some issues associated with the aging canine mind.

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Source: Creative Content License CC(0)

Specifically, this case involved a German Shepherd Dog, named "Antonín". He was owned by a man who immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia along with his wife. The dog was named after Antonín Dvořák, a Czech composer whose music was much loved in the household. Since the man and his wife often spoke their native Czechoslovakian language around their home, it was natural for Antonín to be taught his obedience commands in Czech. When the dog was a little bit less than a year and a half old the man's wife died, and just a few months later he passed away as well.

At that point in his life, Antonín was adopted by the man's son, who had always been fond of the big dog.  Antonín's new owner took the dog to a basic obedience class to retrain the dog to respond to the typical English obedience commands so that the rest of his non-Czech-speaking family members could also control the dog. This was quite effective, and the dog lived happily and responded appropriately in his new English-speaking environment. Things changed when Antonín reached the age of 11 or 12. It was then that he stopped responding to verbal commands. However, because he still responded to hand signals everyone suspected that the dog was simply losing his hearing. The surprise came when the son's uncle came to visit from Czechoslovakia. The uncle liked dogs and soon began telling Antonín what to do in Czeck. The dog responded perfectly to Lehni (leh-nee) “down,” Sedni (said-nee) “sit”, Knoze (kno-zay) “heel,” and Zustan, “stay.” The elderly dog had not lost its hearing, but rather, it seems that he had reverted to his earlier, stronger, memories, which included his “first language."

I cautioned Eva that this is not hard experimental data, but just an observation from a case study. However, if we are allowed to draw a conclusion from these observations it does seem to confirm that for aging dogs their earlier memories do seem to be stronger than later memories, as is sometimes observed in the case of humans.

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Coren, S. (2006). The Intelligence of Dogs (revised edition). New York: Free Press, (pp. i-xvi, 1-299).

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