What do animals remember?

After my parents moved to Florida, Dad didn’t think Pepper would remember him and Mom when they came back to Indiana to visit me. It had been months since she’d seen them. He figured even the smartest schnauzers have limited memory banks.

Before they arrived, I held an image of Mom and Dad in my mind as I told Pepper they were coming. All morning, she trotted from one window to another to watch for them. When my parents arrived, Pepper greeted them in good canine “I know exactly who you are and I am SO, SO BEYOND HAPPY AND EXCITED you’re here!” fashion.

Memory capacity varies by species, of course. But remembering people, locations, cues, and associations that have been important — for good or ill — is wired in for survival.

Research in recent years has shown animals also possess episodic memory, a capability once thought unique to humans. In other words, they remember past events as well as where the litter box is, what “sit” means, and that fresh hay is due at sunrise. (In fact, I just heard internationally known trainer Monty Roberts say on a podcast that horses never forget anything.)

Since I’m an animal communicator, does that mean they relay those past events to me? In a way, yes.

Though animals don’t dwell on the past, they may still live with its effects. So if I’m communicating with a dog because the owner is concerned about his separation anxiety, the dog might show me an image of what contributed to the behavior. That could be a previous owner crying over giving him up, his best dog friend being taken away, or the person who fed him never coming back.

These are glimpses, not narratives. They can still be used, in addition to what is already known about the dog’s history, to help him heal and respond better when his person leaves for work. With a little more knowledge about what went wrong, we’re better able to find the treatment, training, or other resources to make things right.

Science is sure to tell us more about animal memory in the future, but we can make better memories with and for animals now.