Category Archives: memory

How Long is Your Pet’s Memory Span?

By Linda Cole

Some people assume that dogs and cats aren’t capable of retaining memory over the years. Most people believe both species can only remember for a few minutes, at most. However, experts say that how long a dog or cat’s memory span is depends on whether you’re talking about short-term memory or long-term memory – associative memory or real memory.

Associative memory is when a dog or cat remembers by associating a specific activity with what they see, smell or hear, and whether they have a positive or negative memory of it. For example, my dogs associate the sounds my computer makes when it’s shutting down with going outside one last time at night. But if I mute the computer’s volume so they can’t hear the beeps, they have no idea why I’m getting up from my chair. Pets pay close attention to every little thing we do, and their associative memory kicks in when something triggers it. Yet when there’s nothing to associate an action to, their real memory kicks in and they don’t remember what happens next.

Associative memory is the reason why you can’t punish a dog, left alone, for tearing up a pillow or getting in the trash. By the time you get home, he has no idea why you’re yelling at him, but will associate your reaction with unfair discipline, and will remember it. When a pet associates something negative with an activity, it can be hard to change their behavior. If you only take your pet in the car when it’s time to visit the vet, he may associate being in the car with something unpleasant. If your cat has a negative experience in a specific room, she may be reluctant to go back. So it’s important for your pet to experience positive things in the car or the room, like going somewhere enjoyable or having fun playing in that “scary” room. However, you need to tread carefully to make sure you don’t reinforce a negative association your pet will remember.

Cats aren’t as excitable as dogs. They have to maintain their “coolness” after all. Felines do associate sights, sounds and smells, though. If they didn’t, the electric can opener would never be successful at training a cat to come running when “it” calls out. A cat’s memory is thought to be at least 200 times better than a dog’s. But as any cat owner knows, felines are more selective, and remember what they think is useful to them.

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