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Do German Shepherds Forget Their Owners?

Each time we walk through the front door, our dogs jump to greet us.  If we did not know better, we would think that they had not seen us in years by the way that they act.

This may be their reaction after we return home from running out to the store, but what about when we are absent for much longer – do German Shepherds ever forget their owners? The answer here is no, a German Shepherd will always remember its owner.

German Shepherds have an associative, or long term memory that allows them to easily recall significant parts of their life, especially extremely positive or extremely negative events. Since a German Shepherd’s owner is a significant part of its life, it is unlikely that the dog will ever forget them.

But why is this – what kinds of memories do German Shepherds retain and how do they do it? To answer these questions, we will now take a closer look at how a German Shepherd’s brain works as it pertains to memory, and how different factors influence what it retains – and what it forgets.

Episodic memory

Episodic memories come from your personal experiences – something that you have actually gone through and then recall after the fact.

For example, let’s say that you fell and twisted your ankle. You went through that experience so you recall it as such.

These memories contain information relating to the what, the when, and the where. It is very likely that you will be able to easily recall what you were doing at the time, when it occurred, and exactly where you were located when you took the fall. And the next time that you walk in that same area, you will likely be extra cautious.

As this applies to your dog, let’s use the example of when I ask my dog “do you want your food?”

My dog will run over to the laundry room where his food is kept and then sit by the door.

Since my dog has the personal experience of being fed food that is kept the laundry room, he is recalling the when (the last time he ate), the what (food) and the where (laundry room).

He’s basing his knowledge on his own personal experience of where he believes the food is, based on when he last encountered it. 

Semantic memory

Semantic memories are based on Recalling concepts. They deal with questions like “what is the climate like in the South Pole?”

If asked this question, your answer is probably going to be something like – “it’s cold.” Even though you have most likely never experienced the South Pole, you are recalling a fact that you learned elsewhere.

When it comes to a dog, he will use his semantic memory, for example, to perform a trick. Your dog understands that when he hears a command, if he does a certain action, he may be rewarded. He is recalling the concept of doing a trick for reward. The trick is a concept, not an experience that happened to the dog.

Episodic and semantic memories are interrelated

Episodic and semantic memories actually work together and complement each other. Let’s use an example of asking your dog to roll over for a treat.

Your dog has the prior experience of receiving a treat (episodic), and he has the concept memorized of how to roll over (semantic).

So these two types of memory combine and make your dog easily do the trick on command. There is a recollection of the experience of getting a treat, which acts as motivation to recall the concept of rolling over. 

Procedural memory

Procedural memory does not need to be thought about, it’s completely unconscious and deals with learned skills. It’s also referred to as “motor” or “muscle” memory.

Like when a baseball player leaps off of his feet to intercept a line drive – he doesn’t think about it, it just happens. The same is true for your dog.

An example of this would be when you throw a frisbee for your dog and he just runs and catches it. He does not need to think about what he is doing, it is ingrained in his subconscious mind and he just reacts.

Short-term memory

Your dog has a tragically short term memory. Estimates are anywhere between 10 to 70 seconds. And this plays out in our daily lives with some of our dogs and we may not even know it, but it is something very important to be aware of.

Let’s use this example: You leave in the morning to go to work. After a long day you return home only to find that your dog has gotten into the garbage and strewn it all about the kitchen.

Upon this discovery, you are undoubtedly upset and may even decide to verbally scold your dog. But the truth is that your dog has no idea why you are upset. When he chewed up the garbage, he was in the moment, and shortly after that moment passed he moved on to the next thing. 

Tip: Be very mindful of circumstances like this. Should something like this happen and you do come home and punish your dog, your dog may associate your arrival with punishment.

Only consider verbally admonishing your dog in a proper manner or giving it a time out if you have caught your dog doing a bad act in real-time. You have to catch him in the act. Otherwise, any punishment is useless and will actually be a disservice to both you and your dog in the long run. 

Long term memory

Long term memory is also referred to as “imprint” or “associative” memory. Unlike short term memory, long term memory does not go away, and in fact, lasts forever.

Your dog will form long-term memories about a great number of experiences. But just like you, those experiences that impacted you in a highly positive way or a highly negative way are the experiences that will most likely stick with the most vivid recollection.

“Important events, such as those related to food and survival, and events that have an emotional impact are more likely to be stored in the long-term memory.”

Claudia Fugazza, department of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

When are dogs most impressionable?

Similar to humans being most impressionable when they are very young, dogs are most impressionable when they are puppies. Between 3 and 12 weeks of age is the time that puppies will gather the most information and at a rapid rate. It is between these ages when puppies are taking in copious amounts of information about all of the new things happening in their life. These impressions are what set their standard of behavior for the rest of their lives.

 This is exactly why a child who is mistreated when it is young may as a young adult grow into being highly suspicious of others. Similarly, a puppy that is mistreated may grow into an aggressive dog, fearful of all new and strange things.

As discussed in this article, this is the reason why it is especially critical to begin socializing your puppy at a young age.

So which type of memory is your dog using when he remembers you?

Based on what we have discussed above, when your dog remembers you after a period of you being gone it is a combination episodic, semantic, and long-term memory.

Your dog has personally experienced physical contact with you (episodic). He understands the concept of the door opening after he hears your footsteps approaching (semantic). And because your GSD has had many significant associations with you, you are in his long term memory.

When you approach your home to enter, your dog’s episodic and semantic memories trigger its long term memory. So rest assured, if you have been away on an extended leave, or even after a separation from a significant other, your GSD will never ever forget who you are.

Watch this video below as an example of how these memories all work together. The owner and the dog have been separated for years. You can see that the dog at first is timid and even a bit apprehensive.

But as soon as the dog begins to make associations based on episodic and semantic memories, its long term memory takes over and he lovingly jumps into his owner’s arms. Such will always be the case of any extended absence you may have from your GSD.