We bought our dog from a local breeder in the same town as us. I’ve always wondered what would happen should we meet the breeder and mother dog on a walk, and whether my dog would recognize her.
It’s a common question posed by owners. So much so, that I recently researched what science says about dogs remembering their mothers and siblings. I can now share that with you today.
Do dogs remember their mothers? Research suggests that dogs do remember their mothers based on scents. Studies even show that a dog can remember their parents up to 2 years after being separated from them.
That’s the short answer, but what exactly does science and research say about a dog’s ability to remember parents or siblings. Here’s a concise response based on all the research and studies I have found online.
Do dogs remember their parents?
Some dogs do remember their mothers, some dogs remember their parents, but some just don’t. That sounds like an odd thing to say but bear with me as all will become clear once you look at the research involved.
Dr. Peter G. Hepper, Emeritus Professor of Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, conducted an experiment to test if dogs recognized their mothers (view study) and discovered that they did in some ways.
Therefore, it makes sense to assume that if they recognized their mothers, dogs must remember their mothers.
So here’s how Dr. Hepper found out.
In a landmark research published in 1994, Dr. Hepper included three different pure-breeds: 3 Alsatians, 4 Golden Labradors, and 3 Golden Retrievers, which provided 10 mothers and 57 pups. The puppies were 4 to 5 and a half weeks of age.
Before the start of the testing, puppies were separated from their mothers for 30 minutes. Then the puppy was placed in the center of the room. On one end of the room is a cage with the pup’s mother. On the other end is a cage with an unrelated bitch of a similar age and breed.
The pup was then allowed to go near the cages. Of the 57 puppies, 48 showed a preference for their mother.
What about the 9 other puppies?
Either they did not recognize or remember their mother, or they preferred to avoid her. Dr. Hepper’s report was not clear on this part.
To examine the role of scent in recognition, the pups were tested for their preference for the odors of their mother. To do this, six mothers (2 Alsatians, 2 Golden Labradors, and 2 Golden Retrievers) and their pups (34 pups) were tested.
For 2 nights, the mother was separated from her litter and placed in a bed with a towel. The towel was then removed and placed in a sealed plastic container until testing 0 to 2 days later.
As in the previous experiment, the pup was placed in the center of a room, on one end was a mesh box containing the towel impregnated with the mother’s odor, on the other end a mesh box with a towel impregnated with the odor of an unfamiliar female.
28 out of 34 puppies spent more time sniffing the towel with their mother’s scent.
So, month-old pups recognize their mothers based on sight or smell after a separation of 30 minutes. But will dogs remember their mother for a longer duration of separation, say 2 years?
Handy Hint: New research shows that dogs don’t know it’s their own reflection in the mirror.
Will dogs always remember their mother?
Dr. Hepper also thought about that and upped the ante for his experiment. He sought to find out if dogs will still remember their mothers after a separation of 2 years.
Eighteen mothers, (7 Golden Labradors, 5 Alsatians, 6 Golden Retriever, and their pups (49 pups) were tested. The pups had been separated from their mothers when they were 8 to 12 weeks of age.
When they were about 2 years of age, they were gathered and tested. The dogs still recognized their mother, with 37 of the 49 pups spending more time sniffing the cloth scented by their mother.
They were able to carry the memory of their mother from infancy to adulthood.
Another study using different breeds of dogs have confirmed Dr. Hepper’s findings. Gillis C. et.al conducted a similar experiment on 8 dogs (4 Collies, 2 Cairn Terriers, 1 Golden Retriever, and 1 Shih Tzu) that had been separated from their mothers for 7 to 68 months.
7 of the 8 dogs spent more time sniffing the towel impregnated with their mother’s odor.
Do mom dogs remember their puppies?
In Dr. Hepper’s experiment, when given a choice of a cloth impregnated with the odor of their offspring or that of an unfamiliar dog of the same age, sex, and breed, the mothers preferred the cloth with their own litter’s odor.
The mothers were able to do this even after 2 years of separation from their offspring, and even after giving birth to other pups in the intervening period.
What mother-pup activities could have formed this bond aside from mom sharing her milk with her pups?
A mother is so much more than a milk station.
In their paper “Maternal behavior in domestic dogs”, Lezama-García et.al. discussed how mom dogs providecontact, nursing, grooming/licking, play, punishment, thermoregulation, and motion to their pups.
Puppies are usually born deaf and blind and have limited motion skills. During the first days after giving birth, the mother hardly leaves her pups and licks them back whenever they stray away from her.
From birth to four weeks old, the mother licks her pups anogenital area to stimulate defecation and urination which they cannot yet do on their own. The pups are also unable to keep themselves warm and the mother provides the heat source to maintain them at stable body temperature.
Under the mother’s breasts are glands that secrete a substance called Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP). When the pups are nursing., DAP is released and this provides them calm, comfort, and a sense of well-being.
These are all things which can help dogs remember their mothers in the short-term.
Do dogs remember their siblings?
Dr. Hepper has an answer for this, too. Infant dogs can recognize their siblings, but adult dogs can only recognize their siblings if they continue to live with them.
Dogs might remember their siblings by scent (image via https://pixabay.com/photos/dogs-puppies-play-two-group-1210323/)
After 2 years of separation, siblings cannot recognize each other. But luckily, their mothers can, so they will just have to take her word for it.
Do dogs remember their father?
Over 20 years after Dr. Hepper’s experiments with mothers, pups, and their siblings, somebody remembered and asked “How about the father? Do these dogs remember their father?”
In 2015, Jennifer Hamilton and Jennifer Vonk applied Hepper’s methodology to answer this question.
In this study, 15 dogs (Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, and mixed breeds) were tested if they can discriminate the scents of their fathers despite having no contact for more than 1 year.
Surprisingly, female dogs showed a preference for the scent of their fathers, but the male dogs did not. Because of the small number of participants, Hamilton and Vonk recommended that this finding be confirmed in a bigger study.
Handy Hint:You might find this article about dad dogs recognizing their puppies quite interesting too.
Pongcrakz, Peter et.al developed a questionnaire for the owners of 113 companion dogs. Unlike the previous experiments which observed the dogs’ behavior directly, this study probed the behavior of dogs as remembered, observed, and interpreted by their humans.
The human-dog relationship can be so intimate that it is likened to that of a mother and child. If pediatricians interview the mothers to learn about their children, then information obtained from humans about their dogs may also be valuable.
Handy Hint: Have you ever wondered whether dogs think of humans as their parents? I looked into this for you too, and here’s what science says.
The dog owners were asked if they think their dog had a good memory for particular memory items (persons, other animals, events, objects).
One of the interesting findings in this study is that a dog regarded by his human as “just a domestic animal” was perceived as having the poorest memory, compared to a dog regarded as a family member, a child, or a friend.
Pongcrakzand his team reflected on this: “ The question remains, however, whether these results solely mirror the owners’ opinions, or whether a more or less supportive social environment can indeed affect the memory performance of dogs.”
I don’t know about you but I am sure my dog has a very good memory. We have a French Bulldog, Claude. We got him when he was 8 weeks old, and we talk to him like we talk to our children.
I can see that he understands certain things by the way his ears prick up. Or by the way his eyes grow wider when I ask him if he wants to play with his chew toy, even before I take out his chew toy from the box.
We understand our dog and our dog understands us. We can very quickly become their favorite person.
Sometimes it’s funny when we talk to people who may not share this bond with their dogs. In a family gathering, we happened to be talking about our dogs and I told one of the guests that my dog calls me Mama. And the guest exclaimed, “Your dog can talk?!”
No. I explained. While we were having breakfast, Claude approached me and put his snout on my lap. I told him I had eaten all my marmalade toast and that Claude should go ask from his Mama. Immediately, Claude turned around and walked over to the other side of the table and put his snout on her lap. He knows his Mama.
As we can see, science suggests that dogs do remember their parents, mother, and possibly siblings for some years after separation.
Whether dogs miss their mothers though is an entirely different matter.
But, they certainly do appear to remember their mothers for a couple of years, if you assume recognizing smell is the same as remembering.
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