Do Animals Have Memories?

The Today Show (several weeks ago) briefly touched on a study about how animals do not have memories (and they don’t have future thoughts). As far as I can tell, from the brief reporting, the study was talking about memory in the sense of “thinking about the past”.

Savanna Guthrie mentioned how this lack of memory didn’t make sense to her because the Today Show puppy remembers tricks he had learned the day before. Here is the deal: memories and knowledge are generally thought of as two different things. Wrangler (the puppy) isn’t lying in his crate remembering yesterday’s training session. When he is asked the do the trick from the day before he also isn’t having thoughts (memories) of yesterday’s training session. He does, however, remember the trick- but he experiences it as knowledge, not as a memory. For example as you read this you know how to read, but you aren’t remembering when you were 5 and learned how to read.

Matt Lauer mentioned that his childhood dog always met him at the bus stop. He wondered how the dog could know to come at that time without a memory. The dog must have been sensitive to his own biological clock and environmental reminders (such as daylight or the mailman’s schedule) to know when to go the the bus stop. Of course the dog did not say to himself at 10 AM, “Oh I must go the the bus stop to meet Matt at 3 PM.”


My experience from asking animals about the past is that they never think about it unless something from the present moment is reminding them to recall their knowledge and experiences from the past. I do believe that animals, including dogs, absolutely have memories when they are triggered (by in the moment circumstances) but I do agree with the study that dogs don’t have memories in the sense of thinking about the past on their own.

I previously wrote about donkeys and their excellent memories. Reading that you can take the word “memory” and change it to “ability to retain knowledge”, if you want to have a new way of thinking about what I wrote above.

Published by Dawn Allen

I am a fiber artist. I create my own fabric designs and finished art quilts as well.

18 thoughts on “Do Animals Have Memories?

  1. This is one of the best perspectives I have seen on the subject. I often wonder if my rescue animals have sad thoughts about what happened to them previously. I can only hope to trigger good memories for them and fill their lives with even more.

  2. I agree and disagree. I have a Bichon Frise who came from a puppy mill and is very fearful of people, I think her memories are very frightening and every time someone comes near she remembers her horror. I think the conditions she lived in were worse than a concentration camp and she is having a hard time coming to the present.

    1. Yes Carol, your comment is exactly what I am talking about. Memories are triggered– not happening on their own when your dog is alone with her thoughts. In your dog’s case almost the entire world is a trigger so her “memories” appear to constantly follow her. Also humans are a trigger so you being a human have never seen her without some of that fear. It would be interesting to watch her alone on a hidden camera. (And yes, I know she also loves you- memories can make the world confusing.)

  3. So essentially you are saying that animals don’t dwell on past experiences (their memories, good or bad) as people are known to do. But something that happens in the present can trigger that memory.

    1. Yes but animals often aren’t aware that they are having a triggered “memory”. If a donkey is afraid of skirts (like my little guy) he may not see a skirt and reflect on the past. He might see the skirt, feel scared and run away, all without really know “why” he did it. Depends on the situation. (FYI He is not scared of women, just skirts).

      1. I have a 13 yr old mixed breed dog who was dumped on my road at 2 months old. Since I already had 2 dogs, I didn’t intent to keep her and said to this puppy, “Your name is Kelly Girl because you are temporary”. Four years later I was sitting on a bank watching some brush burn and she came over and sat beside me in a business-like manner. No asking for petting, etc. It got my attention and I noticed the other 2 dogs were at a distance watching. Then, as clearly as any voice, I heard in my head “I don’t want to be temporary any more!”. Breaks my heart to think she didn’t know she was not temporary any more. So I said, “OK, your name is now Kelly the Permanent Dog” and that made her very happy. Her behavior became more confident as well. A Lesson that what you say to and around little ones, 2 and 4 legged, can be taken into their hearts and lived, even when the 2-legged ones no longer have the concrete memory of it and we grownups certainly are unaware of what we have just done.

  4. Interestingly, people have the same kind of distinctions. There’s “explicit memory” – like remembering the time I saw a red-tailed hawk kill a rabbit at age five) encoded and filed in one part of the brain. Then there’s “implicit memory” – when the body and emotional brain remembers (or in Dawn’s language “retaining knowledge” – though it is not conscious knowledge) of the emotional or physical tone from an early experience – often preverbal but not necessarily. For a great explanation, people can look at Dan Siegel’s Parenting from the Inside Out. These kinds of memory are explained really clearly in layperson’s terms, w/ sidebars getting more into the science.

    1. This is very helpful. Thank you for the added insight. It makes sense about the preverbal part too because animals remain “preverbal” for the most part!

  5. I find your articles fascinating.I have a horse in my yard and when his previous owner comes he pins his ears back and is very nasty to him I often wondered if he remembered something this person may have done to him.

    1. Maybe remembering something specific, maybe doesn’t like the person, maybe just likes your place and wants to be sure he isn’t about to be “taken home”.

  6. Hi Dawn:

    You were such a great help to me with my recue Snowshoe Siamese Cat who was biting me. You taught me the reason he was being a bad boy. I followed you suggestions and they help me realize that my cat did love me and just did not know how to communicate with me. When he wanted to play, or eat or just sit on my lap he would surprise me with a nip which surprised me to being frighten of him. That made him feel “Top Cat” in the house and once I had enough of his unacceptable behavior and reprimanded him with spraying water at him; he stopped. He still bits once in awhile when I am reading a book and don’t notice he is asking me to serve him.

    Just your intervention has saved his life and mine.

    I want to thank you for being there for both of us in time of need.

    He has been with me now 3 years and this is his forever home.

    Thank you, for all you did to make us a family.

    Bernice J Stone , Oakham, MA. 508 882-3900

  7. Hi Dawn,
    I am wondering about how dreams fit into this? It seems like Auggie has a number of different types of dreams. Sometimes he seems to be having a good dream as his tail will wag sometimes gently, other times wildly. Then he has the running, yipping, what seems like chasing dreams. Then there are the ones that seem distressed, when he growls, barks, and sometimes even snaps. I don’t know that he is having specific memories of an event in his life, but it would make some kind of sense to me that memories of some kind would lay the foundation of these dreams.

    I think I have somehow fallen off your blog email reminders. I am going to sign up again. I also just signed up for your artwork emails. Your work continues to amaze me!!

    1. As I talk about memories in the article I am talking about “thinking about the past in the present moment”. Having your past influence your present behavior is a given. Of course we all do that animals included! As for dreams I find animals very rarely remember their dreams so I haven’t been able to ask many dogs about that. Personally I never dream directly about a memory. My mind always jumps around and warps a bunch of information together.
      I was just thinking about you yesterday and wondering how you are so it is lovely to hear from you.

      1. Thanks Dawn, I was also thinking about you the day before the email showed up!! Must of been the telepathic waves!!! Physically, I am not doing very well. This illness has progressed quite a bit since I last saw you. Financially I am even worse, but my spirits are good, and Auggie is good, so all is good!!! I am happy to be back on your blog email list, and being able to see your wonderful artwork. I have been doing mixed media art journaling, which I enjoy.

        After I wrote about the dreams, I realized that probably isn’t memory per se, so I agree with what you wrote. Specifically what I was thinking about was my dear little Mika, and how she did not seem to have any bad dreams, until she was about 6 years old and was seriously attacked by a dog. Then the barking, running motion dreams started. But that was more likely a flight or fight reaction, than a memory.

        Have a good summer, and I will look forward to your blogs!!

  8. Animals do have memories.
    For an example, when animals are traumatized, they can carry that traumatic memory with them. Just like some of our soldiers, they have post traumatic stress. The animals may not lament on the trauma like humans do, but the memory of it, can make them afraid in many different situations, not just a situation identical the original event. We say that the humans remember the trauma, why not the animals.
    Another example occurred many years ago. One of our black cats killed a blue jay. Our other black cat could sit or walk around the yard unaccosted. But the cat that killed the blue jay was assaulted every time he walked out the door. Loud chattering, alert calling, and the adult birds even daringly swooped down legs extended, trying to grab and scratch him, pushing him to leave the yard. The large group of blue jays, not only remembered that there was an attack, but that he was the black cat that killed one of their family members. The poor guy stayed in the house for days, weeks later they were still going after him, he spent half of that summer hiding under bushes.

    1. Yes exactly what I am saying too. They don’t sit around and think about those memories at other times or when they are involved in other activities, only when something triggers the memory. Of course animals remember and retain trauma.

  9. Hi Dawn this is dialogue is a great discussion and of relevance to our structures as well. As a trauma therapist we study the nature of memory in depth as the definition of trauma is a memory of any degree of subtlity or extreme that is not integrated into the the nervous system as a memory. Dr. Dan Seigel explains that we have two basic categories of memory into which our human- maybe mammals in general(?)- memories fall. Implicit memory is laid down in tracks of the nervous system like an imprint. Seigel defines this memory as “an event in the past which effects our experience in the present and often the way we will respond in the future”. This kind of memory is encoded in our nervous system as early as the third trimester in utero. The second kind of memory is called Explicit which is integrated into the other body of experience in a more contextual experiential way either as fact (i.e. naming an object: DOG!) or biographical memory (i.e.” my binky” or “no nap” when a baby is sleepy).
    The Hypo-campus is the part of the brain that coordinates or integrates the implicit memories into explicit. In the case of PTSD the memories that happened long ago have not been integrated because the hypocampus was either deactivted by circumstances
    (shock, overwhelm, substances etc). The individual experiences them as though they are happening in current real time. The event is triggered by an association with a past event but it is experienced as a present occurrence because it is encoded in a way that bypasses the Hypo campus.
    In us humans, the Hypo campus does not come on line untill about 18 months of age as memory. We know our tribe( mom, dad, sibs, pets) but the ability to recall an experience as though it happened in the past as well as, or opposed to this living moment does not begin to emerge till then.
    I wondered if you had a sense if this early- and beautifully present-state of implicit memory and association is similar to what you were so beautifully describing.
    This work of Seigel’s is really beautifully outlined with much more in his CD series called The Neurobiology of We or his book called The Developing MInd. He is very warm and clear in his loving presentation of our brains, minds and relationship and how all three interact within this matrix of love and loss.
    Thanks for YOUR loving gifts over these years and most recently with my release of Hafiz and Jack.
    Archer Martin,

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