“You must come and visit,” my mum’s friend said. “Kira will want to see you.”
It sounds like an ordinary invitation but my friend Kira is not human, she’s a Retriever. I said yes instantly, but at the same time, I was wondering if Kira would remember me.
When we first met seven years ago, Kira was my mum’s neighbour. She was just a pup back then, and she would stick her nose through the fence every morning, begging to be patted. When we met properly, she’d offer her toys and invite me to play.
Five years ago, Kira’s family had to move to South America, to a place that wasn’t dog-friendly, and so Kira went to live with my mum’s friend.
It was a wrench for the humans but Kira went from one loving home to another. Also, she went from being an only dog to having an older sister, Leah.
I love Kira and I see her every year when I go home to Spain. However, I was wondering: how good are dog memories? Would Kira know me? Would she remember our history together?
When it comes to my own pets and dog friends, I have no doubt about our friendship. We see each other every day, and as they’re not daft, it’s no trick for us to know each other.
In fact, their greeting shows what they’re thinking. A stranger gets a warning woof and a watchful gaze whereas friends get excited barking and tonnes of tail wagging.
Dog memories definitely work over months. When Lucy, our family dog, was alive, I’d see her twice a year, between school semesters.
When I’d arrive, Lucy would spot me at the gate, and for a second she’d freeze. Then she’d howl, fall onto her back, jump up, bounce up to me, lick me all over, bark again, race inside to tell everyone I was home, and then rush out again and plaster herself all over me.
Lucy knew me well, we were family, but my relationship with Kira is much more tenuous. When we first met, we saw each other daily for two weeks. But I only saw her for half an hour last year.
Also, three months ago Kira’s new family moved house. They didn’t go far, just a few miles up the road, but memory is often closely connected to other stimuli, including location.
For example, I recognise my neighbour from four doors down if she’s standing in her garden but she’s a stranger to me in the supermarket.
So, I considered Kira might remember me in her own home but with the move, she might not. As for Leah, I’ve met her some half dozen times over the years, never for more than a fleeting social call, and so I was certain she’d not know me at all.
When my mum and her friend were making visiting arrangements, I had a momentary lapse of reason and blurted out my thoughts.
Kira’s mum was shocked to the core. “Of course Kira will remember you! And Leah too.”
“They’re clever girls,” my mum reproved me.
I had violated a canon law; all dogs are wonderful always.
“Right,” I said hastily. “Don’t know what I was thinking. Jetlag scrambled my brains.”
But while I abased myself, I was secretly curious to see what Kira and Leah would do.
When the morning came, we waited outside the locked gate as the girls woofed to tell their mum she had visitors. I kept quiet and went in last.
Now, both dogs are very close to my mum. They see each other most weeks and they love each other. So when the dogs spotted her, they were all excited; there was tail waving, joyful yipping and dancing.
Leah didn’t know me. She greeted me nicely, smiling and nudging me happily before dancing back over to my mum, but the nosing was simply a nice girl being polite to a visitor.
Then Kira saw me. She paused, came over and then she woofed loudly and began to dance. There was no doubt about it, she remembered me as an old friend.
Kira dashed about, clearly announcing this was a special occasion. Then she frisked around me, and decorated me with a fine accolade: a thin layer of fur.
After saying hello, Kira took me for a walk in her new garden. While she was showing me the lawn, the hedge and the exciting path where the local sheep pass by, Leah came rushing up to offer me Panda, her favourite stuffy that was her Christmas present from my mum.
Kira didn’t just remember me but her cavorting also convinced Leah to put on her best company manners. The panda said it all: I was among old friends.
Do elephants never forget?
It’s quite difficult to see how good animal memories are because there are few proper studies. Also, the world is divided into people who love animals and think they are just like us, and people who think of animals as inferior to us.
Studies of dog long-term memory are rare. However, there are countless stories of people who have gone home after several years of being overseas for study or work, only to be greeted with ecstatic delight by their pets. It’s probably not a stretch to say that an adult dog will remember a close family member for at least four years – a typical university course.
As for other animals, elephants are possibly the poster animal for feats of memory. Scientists have theorised that there must be something to this because the matriarchs who lead the troops can remember the location of distant rivers and ponds during droughts, even if they haven’t travelled there for decades.
Also, herds are consistent about being wary of strange elephants but welcoming to old friends.
In one particular amazing incident in 1999, Jenny who was living at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the United States, welcomed a new arrival called Shirley. When her caretakers looked into it, they found that Jenny and Shirley had been at the same circus for a few months, back in 1977 – some 22 years earlier.
Bottlenose dolphins are also capable of recognising friend’s signature whistles, even if they haven’t met in years. In a US study involving 43 bottlenose dolphins at six facilities, scientists were able to show dolphins responding with excitement to animals they’d known decades earlier and with only polite interest to random dolphin whistles.
As for our close cousins, the great apes, they seem to share our capacity for long-term memory too. In 2010, researchers in Denmark hid some tools in boxes in a room and then let a group of chimpanzees and orangutans search the place until they found them. Three years later, they recreated the test – and this time, the animals walked straight over to the old hiding places, no searching required.
Do you have a story that proves your pet’s long-term memory is as good as ours? Write in and tell us about it.