You know your rescue dog had a life before you walked into the shelter, but how much of that time do they actually remember? Would your dog recognize their old owners or where they used to live? Can they recall specific experiences whether they were good or bad? For some rescues, forgetting a painful past might be a good thing, but is that even possible? Here’s a closer look at how your dog’s memory works and what scientists think they can remember about their past.
Breaking Down Memory
The question of whether or not rescue dogs can remember their pasts has to do with the power of their memory. We all know dogs have decent memories—how else would they know what to do when you say “sit” or what it means when you get out their leash? The act of remembering, however, is more complicated than we realize. There are different aspects of memory, and the way in which dogs remember is still unclear
Remembering Past Training With Semantic Memory
Semantic memory is a type of long-term memory that draws on knowledge over experience. People use semantic memory when they study for tests, and babies use it in overdrive as they learn to recognize everything from people’s faces to the colors of their favorite toys. Semantic memory is the brain remembering general knowledge needed for daily life.
When you teach your dog the cue for “roll over,” they use their semantic memory to connect your words with the action you want them to perform. As long as you occasionally reinforce that memory, your dog should hold on to that knowledge their entire life. It’s the reason why when you adopt a rescue dog, one of the first things you should do is determine where they are with training. New owners are encouraged to randomly call out different cues to see if the dog responds.
Thanks to semantic memory, dogs can easily remember things they learned years ago. If your rescue dog was trained before you met them, they won’t suddenly forget those lessons once you adopt them. That training will stick with them even as the rest of their life changes.