So Dogs Have Bad Short-Term Memory? It’s Better Than Yours.

Posted on March 9, 2015


A Swedish study making the rounds in the news this week allegedly notes that many animals have “terrible short-term memories.” Guess what? It’s better than ours.

Somehow, the media picked up a University of Stockholm study and concluded that animals are dolts who never remember much of anything. The public is deluged with such moronic headlines as:

“Sorry, But Your Dog Can’t Remember That Fun Game Of Fetch.”

“Your Dog Is About To Forget You Ever Hugged Them.”

“Feel guilty for telling your pets off? Don’t worry, they can’t remember.”

Great. Just great.

This does not pass the common-sense test, and it abjectly fails any kind of academic test. Reporters and editors everywhere, now hear this: if you are too stupid or can’t be bothered to accurately report on science issues, please stay out of it. You’re making things worse.

To be fair, the University’s own web page may be partly to blame, thanks to its summary: “A new study finds that all animals have equally bad short-term memory. The only species that stands out is man.”

NO.  That is measurably wrong, and NOT what the study says. I suspect that the authors’ heads are about to explode, so here are the actual study highlights:

We tested animal working memory using meta-analyses on delayed matching-to-sample data.

Without delays we found no evidence for differences between mammals, birds and bees.

We cannot exclude that birds match the performance exhibited by mammals.

Neither monkeys nor apes stand out when it comes to memory performance.

Animals use specialized and general memory systems for different kinds of information.

There’s no surprise here, and not much of a story. The real story is that the University of Stockholm has a scientifically illiterate person writing summaries on its public website, and a scientifically illiterate media runs wild with warped conclusions.

To set things straight: The average short-term memory span among 25 species of animals tested was “only” 27 seconds.  Does anyone remember high-school psychology class? Human short-term memory, which has been studied for over a century, is somewhere between 10 seconds and one minute. The dogs, at some 70-odd seconds in the Swedish study, have us beat!

It’s old news that we have two different memory processes: short-term and long-term. Animals have the same. Don’t believe it? The media bashed chimps’ performance in the study for having a roughly 20-second memory; yet a 2013 study showed that chimps have “human-like” memories, recalling the locations of hidden tools after three years. Dolphins, too, were part of the Swedish study… and thus ranked among the animals with “terrible” short-term memory… but a previous University of Chicago study showed that they remembered the distinctive whistles of individual dolphins they had not seen in 20 years.

Then there are the anecdotes: such amazing animals as Chaser the Border Collie, who can pick out over 1,000 toys by name, or Alex the African Grey Parrot, who not only had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but understood them, used syntax, and asked questions. He also is the only animal known to have asked a question about himself: he wanted to know the name of his own color, and so learned the word “grey.” There are the elephants Shirley and Jenny, who recognized each other in a heartwarming reunion after 20 years apart. There was Christian the Lion, who remembered his human friends over a year after being released into the wild.

But the biggest repudiation of the media headlines this week is our own experience with animals. How many of us have gone off to college or spent years away from home, only to have the family pet greet us with enthusiasm after months, even years apart? If you haven’t had that experience, check out this collection of videos of soldiers reuniting with their dogs after long deployments.

The real conclusion we all should draw from the Swedish study is exactly the opposite of the drivel the media is spouting: as far as memory formation goes, animals are more similar to us than many realize… or want to admit.