What’S A Dog’S Memory Span?

What is the memory span like for our canine companions? Dogs may seem to have a short attention span at times when they’re distracted by a squirrel or a treat. However, research shows that dogs actually have excellent memories in some surprising ways. For example, one study found that dogs were able to remember specific words they were taught up to two years later!

A dog’s memory capabilities are fascinating and can range from short-term memories of daily routines to long-lasting memories of people and other dogs from years in the past. In this article, we’ll explore the unique traits of a dog’s memory span across different types of memory, and how you can help enhance your dog’s memory abilities.

What is Memory Span?

Memory span refers to the number of items a person can hold in their short-term memory and immediately recall in correct order. It is a measure of working memory capacity and short-term memory (Blankenship, 1938).

In humans, memory span is commonly tested using digit span tasks, where a person must repeat a sequence of digits in the order presented. The length of the longest sequence a person can correctly recall is their digit span. Other types of memory span tasks include letter span, word span, and spatial span (Wikipedia).

There are two main types of memory span: forward span and backward span. Forward span measures the ability to recall items in the order they were presented. Backward span involves recalling items in the reverse order. Backward span places greater demands on working memory and is typically lower than forward span (Study.com).

Dog Brain vs Human Brain

While a dog’s brain is smaller than a human’s brain, MRI studies have shown that they contain many of the same structures, including the hippocampus which is key for memory formation and storage. According to one study, the hippocampus makes up about 2.5% of the volume of a dog’s brain compared to only 0.5% for humans, suggesting dogs may have a greater capacity for memory relative to total brain size.1

However, the dog brain has fewer cortical neurons overall compared to humans, approximately 160 million versus 16 billion. The cortex plays a key role in higher functions like problem-solving, language, andconscious thought. So while dogs may have excellent memory for tasks, smells, locations, words and people’s faces, their overall capacity for cognition is less than humans.2

Additionally, a major difference between dog and human brains is the presence of convolutions and folds in the cerebral cortex. The many folds in the human cortex allow for more surface area and increased capacity for cognitive function. Meanwhile, dogs have smoother cortices with fewer folds, consistent with their stronger reliance on senses like smell rather than abstract thinking.1

Short-Term Memory

A dog’s short-term memory span is quite limited compared to humans. Research indicates that dogs can only remember an event for about 2 minutes or less. This means that whatever a dog experiences is quickly forgotten unless it’s somehow reinforced within that brief timeframe.

In a 2014 study published in the journal Behavioral Processes, researchers tested dogs’ short-term memory by showing them how to get a food reward from a puzzle box. The dogs were able to remember how to solve the puzzle for only about 2 minutes before forgetting the process.

Some experts believe this short memory span developed as an evolutionary adaptation in dogs. Since their ancestors lived in the moment as hunters, there wasn’t much need to remember specific events that happened minutes ago. What mattered most was what was happening in the present.

So while dogs may quickly forget an interaction or event, repetition and reinforcement can help transfer things into their long-term memory. Frequent walks along the same route or repeating training cues strengthens the dog’s ability to remember over a longer period of time.

Long-Term Memory

Dogs have been shown to have excellent long-term memory abilities. According to research from Duke University, dogs can remember hand signals and words learned up to 10 years prior (PetMD). This indicates that dogs are able to store long-term memories of complex tasks.

In another study from Hungry, dogs who were separated from their owners for months or years still remembered them upon reunion. The dogs exhibited signals of recognition even after absences of 5 years. This demonstrates a long-lasting memory of human companions in dogs (LiveScience).

Overall, dogs are capable of forming long-term memories lasting months or years. Their excellent long-term retention allows them to remember words, hand signals, faces, people, places, and experiences for extended periods of time.

Training Dog Memory

There are several methods that can help improve a dog’s memory through training. One technique is to teach dogs the names of their toys. Giving each toy a unique name and reinforcing which toy belongs to which name engages the dog’s mind to remember the association (Dogseechew). Another memory exercise is to play hiding games with treats or toys. Hiding a treat and asking your dog to sit and stay, then releasing them to go find the treat activates their ability to remember where the reward was hidden (AKC Fun Cognitive Games). You can increase the difficulty by hiding toys or treats in multiple locations around the house or yard. Praise and reward your dog when they locate the item.

In addition, training your dog through repetition of commands and tricks keeps their brain engaged. Always reward your dog for successfully obeying a cue. Start with short 5 minute training sessions per day, then increase to 10-15 minutes as your dog progresses. Training classes are another excellent way to stimulate your dog’s memory since they provide mental challenges as your dog practices obedience, agility, tricks, etc. The key is finding ways to activate your dog’s natural ability to remember information through play, training, and daily activities (AKC Keeping Your Dog’s Mind Sharp).

Memory Loss in Dogs

Just like humans, dogs can experience memory loss and dementia as they age. Some common causes of memory loss and dementia in senior dogs include:

Brain aging – As dogs get older, their brains go through changes that can lead to cognitive decline. Amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles may form in the brain, disrupting normal communication between neurons.

Canine cognitive dysfunction – Also known as “dog Alzheimer’s disease,” canine cognitive dysfunction is associated with progressive memory loss, confusion, anxiety, and personality changes in dogs.

Vascular disease – Reduced blood flow to the brain due to conditions like high blood pressure can impair memory and thinking skills.

Some common symptoms of memory loss and dementia in dogs include:[1]

  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in sleep-wake cycles
  • Loss of prior housetraining
  • Failure to recognize familiar people or pets
  • Changes in social interactions

If your senior dog is displaying any of these signs of cognitive decline, it’s important to schedule a veterinary checkup. Early treatment may help slow the progression of canine dementia and improve your dog’s quality of life.

Improving Dog Memory

There are several things owners can do to help improve their dog’s memory and keep their mind sharp. Mental stimulation is key – just like humans, dogs need to exercise their brains. Here are some tips:

Teach new tricks – Learning new commands and behaviors exercises a dog’s brain. Start with basic obedience, then move on to more complex tricks. Change up the routines to keep their mind engaged.

Use puzzle toys – Putting treats inside toys that require manipulation or problem-solving forces dogs to work for their food. This stimulates their brains and activates their natural foraging instincts. Rotate different puzzle toys to keep it interesting.

Play hide and seek – Hiding treats around the house and having your dog hunt for them taps into their memory and sense of smell. Make it more challenging by hiding toys instead of treats. Let your dog watch you hide it first, then increase the difficulty over time.

Take new routes on walks – Following the same paths all the time can become routine for your dog. Changing up the routes and locations of walks makes your dog engage their spatial memory and mapping abilities. New sights and smells also provide mental enrichment.

Train in different locations – Only practicing obedience cues in the same spot allows your dog to rely on environmental cues. Training your dog in new environments forces them to listen to your commands instead of going on autopilot.

Dog Breed Differences

Research has shown that there are significant differences in memory ability across dog breeds. A recent study published in Nature analyzed various cognitive traits like memory, problem-solving and impulse control across 13 popular dog breeds (Jones, 2022). The breeds with the best working memory included border collies, poodles and German shepherds. Meanwhile, breeds like bulldogs and basenjis performed poorly on memory tests, suggesting weaker working memory capacities.

According to the study, the difference in memory performance across dog breeds is likely due to genetic factors. Breeds that have been purposely bred for tasks requiring strong memory for commands or spatial navigation tend to have greater memory abilities. Herding breeds like border collies have been selected for their ability to memorize complex commands and spatial locations. In contrast, some hound breeds have been bred less selectively for cognitive traits like memory.

While individual differences will always exist, this research highlights the influence of genetics and breed history on a dog’s memory. Owners of breeds with poorer working memory may need to use different training methods focused on repetition and consistency. But regardless of breed differences, all dogs have the capacity to strengthen their memory through mental stimulation and training.


Jones, A. (2022). Breed differences in social cognition, inhibitory control, and working memory in domestic dogs. Nature Scientific Reports, 12(1). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-26991-5


In this article, we discussed the complexities of dog memory and how it compares to human memory. While dogs may have a short-term memory span of only two minutes, their long-term memories can store important information for years. We explored how dogs create memories through sights, sounds, smells, and experiences. While some breeds may have naturally better memories than others, any dog’s memory can be improved through training and care. The key takeaways are that dogs do form long-lasting memories, especially of people and experiences that are meaningful to them. Their memory abilities may be different than ours, but no less powerful. What we interpret as “forgetfulness” is simply their short-term memory functioning as nature intended. Overall, dog memory is a fascinating window into canine cognition.

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