A study by researchers at Stockholm University has concluded that “animals have no long-term memory of arbitrary events.” By “long-term,” the researchers mean longer than 27 seconds, which is the average across all species they looked at.
And, yes, that includes dogs.
According to the study, which was published in the journal Behavioural Processes, dogs can retain information for two minutes, which may not sound like much, but actually compares favorably to chimpanzees, who, if you believe this research, are barely able to retain information long enough to remember who they were about to fling their feces at. If you’re curious, humans can remember stuff for 48 hours, which is why every weekly TV show has to start with “Previously on…”
I have two comments to make about this study:
- I automatically reject any memory research published in a journal that can’t remember how to spell “behavioral,” or from a country that can’t remember to assemble its furniture before selling it.
- They must have used a dumb breed like Afghan hounds* for the dog study, because my dearly departed sheltie, Toby (pictured at right), would keep on returning to the exact location in a 50-acre park where he found a single potato chip three years earlier.
It’s true that my new sheltie, Riley (below), has difficulty remembering that his tail is attached, but he’s only 14 weeks old. And I’m proud to say he already knows “sit,” “come,” and “heel,” although he’s still a bit shaky on “stay” and “let go of my sleeve.”
To be fair, scientists believe animals have “specialized memory systems” that can hold “biologically significant information” (like the location of a food source) for much longer periods of time. This is why I can’t remember any of my passwords but I can always manage to find my way to the refrigerator. Toby, for instance, always recalled where the squirrels hung out in the park, although, despite his best efforts, the only way one of those rodents was ever going to be a food source for him was if it had a broken leg and a death wish. The squirrels wouldn’t even bother running up the nearest tree; they’d lead Toby on long Figure-8 chases before finally doing the squirrel equivalent of saying “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” and scurrying up an oak, leaving Toby to race around the trunk barking, as if that was a good way to get the squirrel to come back down.
Where was I?
Right–the memory study. I suspect that scientists who conduct studies on dogs are never actual dog owners. If they were, they’d just know their conclusions are wrong. I’d even go as far as saying that some of the scientists are the Afghan hounds of the academic world, if you get my drift.
Some of their studies are just plain stupid. Take, for example, a study at Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, where researchers are trying to determine if dogs are moral. They do this (and I am not making this up) by performing puppet shows for the dogs wherein a puppet rat either helps a puppet hedgehog up a hill or pushes the puppet hedgehog down the hill. After watching the situations play out twice, the dog is asked to choose the nice puppet rat or the mean puppet rat.
Well, we know these dogs will be amoral because they obviously come from very wealthy families who can afford to send them to Yale. I mean, what normal dog would sit through two puppet shows in the first place, much less doing it without grabbing all the puppets and turning them into pull toys?
And why would the researchers think that dogs are any more consistently moral or amoral than a random sampling of humans? Like most of us, I’d assume most dogs aren’t one or the other all the time. I’m sure Toby never lied to me, but, if given the opportunity, he wouldn’t have hesitated to steal my cheese sandwich. Even little Riley knows right from wrong, although occasionally someone’s big toe is just too delicious-looking to resist.
Then there’s the Japanese study in which researchers tried to discern meaning in dogs’ facial expressions. According to the study, the dogs raised their eyebrows in response to seeing a person they knew, but raised them higher, especially their left eyebrows, when seeing their owners. When seeing a stranger, the dogs moved their left ears back slightly.
This is extremely useful information if you happen to be a Japanese scientist in need of a research grant, but I’m not sure how I could apply it to my day-to-day interactions with Riley. As it is, if you whistle certain tunes, his ears rotate independently like tiny satellite dishes. What would the Japanese people think of that?
Besides, wouldn’t a dog think just about everyone was a stranger? After all, every time they meet someone, they supposedly forget about him two minutes later.
See you soon.