Barrett James has an amazing working memory, which is a type of memory that allows your dog to keep information in mind for a few minutes and mentally manipulate it. This may sound simple, but working memory is crucial for any kind of problem-solving. In humans, working memory has been found to correlate with skills in learning, math, reading, and language. Researchers have even found some evidence that in children, working memory is more predictive of academic success than IQ.
In these memory games, Barrett James had to understand that the treat continued to exist, even though it had disappeared from view. In the wild, this ability is essential. Animals have to keep track of mates, predators, and prey that might disappear momentarily behind a bush or a rock.
If Barrett James is an avid fetch player, you've probably noticed that no stick or ball escapes for long. Barrett James skillfully searching for an object that has briefly disappeared is a perfect example of him using his working memory to solve a problem.
For Barrett James, out of sight is definitely not out of mind.
Most dogs can remember their mothers even if they haven't seen them for two years. However, they can't remember their brothers and sisters after a similar separation.
Memory versus Pointing
In this game, Barrett James saw you put the treat under one cup, but point to the other cup. Barrett James preferred to rely on the information in his working memory rather than what you pointed to. Even though you gave Barrett James misleading information, he remembered where the treat was and chose to ignore you. This shows an independent thinker; you should be aware that in other situations Barrett James might not listen to you if he thinks you are wrong.
Despite being genetically similar, dogs and wolves make opposite choices in this game. This difference may be behind why we love dogs so much.
Memory versus Smell
Since dogs have such a keen sense of smell, you may have been surprised that after you switched the cups, Barrett James used his memory over his sense of smell. He went to where he remembered seeing the treat hidden, rather than sniffing out where the treat was.
Because a dog's nose can sniff everything from narcotics to cancer, whenever we run a study where we hide a treat under one of two cups, the first question people always ask is, "Can't my dog just smell the food under the cup?" It was certainly our first question, but extensive research by half a dozen independent research groups has concluded that dogs do not rely on their sense of smell to find the food in these games.
If dogs were using smell, they would go directly to the cup with the hidden food. In fact, these studies found that dogs only choose the correct cup around half the time - which means they are guessing. Dogs do have an excellent sense of smell and can probably detect food if allowed to sniff both cups before choosing. But when you study their first choice, they cannot localize the food to a specific cup from a distance of six feet away.
One study found that to successfully track a person's direction of travel, tracking dogs need at least five sequential footsteps.
Delayed Cup Game
This game was a perfect demonstration of Barrett James's excellent working memory. After you hid the treat Barrett James had to retain the information for up to two and a half minutes before making a choice.
This skill comes in handy in the wild. Feral dogs tend to be endurance hunters, slowly wearing down their prey. During the chase, the prey may not always be in direct sight, and feral dogs have to remember where their prey was last seen and predict where they might reappear.
In these kinds of memory games, most cats quickly start to forget where an object is after only 10 seconds, while most dogs are still able to show success for up to 4 minutes.