How Can We Tell That Dogs Recognize Their Parents?

Studies show that dogs are capable of recognizing their parents later in life if they were around them during a crucial early period.

By: robinelaine
Dogs recognize the scent of their mothers for up to a decade. By: robinelaine

Here’s an amazing story, the stuff that movies are made of: A baby who was kidnapped at birth found her biological parents.

Carlina White, now a 29-year-old woman, says she always knew she wasn’t her kidnapper’s child. She didn’t have anything to base this on other than a vague sense of knowing that something wasn’t right.

I cannot imagine meeting the mother you were stolen from as a child. And this made me wonder: Do dogs and cats think about the parents and siblings they were separated from in early life? Do their mothers wonder what happened to them? And would they recognize them if they met later in life?

Recognizing Family

A basic principle of evolution is that the fundamental driving force for any species is to reproduce.

This means that a species will protect its close family members or others with similar DNA before aligning with strangers. For instance, you will protect your child before your sister, your sister before your cousin, your cousin before your friend and so on because the closer the familial relation, the more DNA that person will share with you.

Thus, by protecting the closer family member, you are protecting your own imprint on the world.

So it stands to reason that nature will set things up so it’s easy for people to recognize who is close family and who is a distant cousin, whether by smell, sight or some other deeply subconscious biological method.

One study found that puppies could recognize the scent of their mother after a 2-year continuous separation. By: rhaarmans

Familial Ties, Canine Style

Is it possible that other species have the same ability to recognize family after a long separation? I don’t know about other animals, but I’m happy to report that, for dogs, the answer is yes.

According to the Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training (affiliate link) by Steven R. Lindsay, who is a dog behavior consultant and trainer in Philadelphia, dogs are capable of recognizing their mother and siblings later in life if they are exposed to them during the crucial period between 2 and 16 weeks, and especially at 8 weeks.

Here’s what Lindsay has to say on the subject:

  • A 1994 study “demonstrated that offspring recognize the scent of their mother … after 2 years of continuous separation.”
  • Other researchers later showed “that dogs recognize the scent of their mothers after 6 years, and, possibly, as long as 10 years after separation.”
  • “They found that dogs could recognize the hand scent of the breeder for 4 years and possibly as long as 9 years after separation” with no contact in between.

All of this makes sense — not just for kin selection (a fancy term for favoring your closest relatives first) but also to keep the species from inbreeding.

Watch this sweet reunion between a mom and her 4 adorable puppies:

https://youtu.be/WzTB7THL0AM

The Secret Lives of Animals

Do dogs feel any sort of longing for their family once they’ve been separated?

That, unfortunately, we just don’t know. However, there are several documented cases of animals grieving the death of their young.

Animals have secret lives that we just don’t know about. I know my cats think and know things that I will never be privy to. Although it’s easier for me to read my dog, Lulu, she too has her own thoughts and feelings that will always be hers alone.

I’m not sure if Lulu ever thinks about her mother, but I would like to think that her mom is happily living with a nice family somewhere, quietly enjoying what must be her golden years now.

Sarah Blakemore

View posts by Sarah Blakemore
Sarah Blakemore has been researching and writing about pet care and pet behaviors since 2007. She has cared for many pets over the years and has volunteered with several animal shelters around the world.

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17 Comments

  1. Melissa
    January 23, 2011

    Thank you for this sweet, thought-provoking post. I have often wondered the same thing about the stray cats that have come and gone from my parents’ place over the years. I have always wondered if they were lonely and missed their family, and what the real story was.

    Reply
  2. Eric
    August 06, 2011

    Sometimes it saddens me when I think about this. Even though animals in nature separate at a young age, I think it’s important to keep family together, and I would think that in the darkest of times, dogs do think about being in their mothers embrace.

    R.I.P daisy, love you always.

    Reply
  3. ALIVINGSTON41
    March 30, 2012

    I WONDER ALL THE TIME WHAT MY PUPPIES ARE THINKING ABOUT IF THEY MISS THIER MOM OR DAD I WONDER WHEN I TELL THEM I LOVE THEM DO THEY UNDERSTAND MOST OF ALL I WONDER DO THEY GO TO HEAVEN I SURE HOPE SO
    I LOVE THEM SO MUCH

    Reply
    1. Kaycee
      October 22, 2013

      They totally understand if you tell them you love them. Dogs are incredibly receptive to human communication. My boston terrier has learned lots of verbal commands and tricks using clicker training. My border collie looks up at the ceiling when I say “ceiling” and looks out the window at the park when I say “other dog”. Most importantly, they wag their tails (or in my little one’s case, her curly-q tail she was born with) and come up for a hug whenever I say “I love you”.

      Reply
    2. Kaycee
      October 22, 2013

      Also, from a Christian perspective, I believe animals go to Heaven because animals never sinned- only humans. Not all Christians believe that, but I do.

      Reply
  4. Yahoo.com
    September 21, 2012

    My labrador puppy Leila, gets to meet her sister this Sunday after a year and a half. I’ve often wondered if they would recognize their family, and now I get that chance. If she is as friendly to a fault, and plays like she is four months old, at 110lbs. Looking forward to watching them together, and of course I’ll believe they know each other. I’ll keep you posted!

    Reply
    1. Pets Adviser
      September 21, 2012

      Aw, how sweet. Yes, please do come back and tell us what you find out! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Riccel
    April 18, 2013

    When me and my dog visited her parents and sister. (Bought my dog thru a friend) i took her when she was 3months old. So i was saying. When we visited her mom dad and sister saw her , they automatically run growl at her and try to bite her.

    Reply
  6. monu
    June 27, 2013

    i feel very sad .. after thinking over this matter … i really love my dog so much .. is my dog truly likes to stay with me …. or not please any one of you can answer to my question …. ????

    Reply
    1. Pets Adviser
      June 27, 2013

      Just keep your beautiful pup happy and healthy, and YES, he will truly love staying with you, and will be the most wonderful part of your life.

      Reply
      1. monu
        June 27, 2013

        thank you …. so much . for your quick answer … iam gald to know this …

        Reply
  7. 14truth
    September 21, 2013

    I know sheep kin recognize one another. Why would a dog not have that ability?

    Although, I adopted a dog who was middle aged. The original owner lost a lot of weight so when the dog saw him a year later, he growled and barked. Continued this behavior even after sniffing… Struck me as odd.
    Conversely, the dog recognized my Mom and Dad even after only brief meetings and long seperations.
    I have to conclude it a scent thing: the owner’s scent must have changed radically with the weight loss, somehow. (Additionally, the dog always reponded negatively to that man’s family members, no matter how hard they tried to be friendly.)
    Perhaps my parents and I share a similar family scent, to which the dog was constantly exposed through being around me.

    Reply
  8. Kaycee
    October 22, 2013

    One of my two dogs is fortunate enough that her parents and brother were owned by my husband’s family members. So even after leaving them, she got to see them again several times. Her parents were eventually rehomed due to their owners’ need to move to a less expensive apartment. But before that, when I’d bring her to visit them, her mother was particularly nice to her versus other dogs. Her father got a little wound up when she was in heat, but never actually tried incest. He was a good dog, and she inherited a lot of his playful personality. My mother in law still owns her brother, and they get along quite well- though he seems a bit more interested in my larger dog. 😛

    I would like to think dogs recognize their own offspring/parents/siblings. But I don’t think they miss them quite as much as humans miss their children.

    My bigger dog and I are soul mates- we’re so attached to each other, and she can’t stand when I’m away, even if my husband is around. I like to think I am her mom. I feel the same way about my smaller dog, but she has far less separation anxiety and seems to adjust to things more easily. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because she had a gradual separation from her parents rather than an abrupt one.

    Reply
  9. Tarie
    January 23, 2014

    A friend of mine has been posting videos on Facebook of her rescue dog and her puppies. Tonight while watching it on my phone on the couch, my rescue dog who had pups (they believe while she was out on the street), responded in a way that I’ve never seen before. When she heard the pups, she cocked her head really far to one side, then really far to the other side and then put her face right up gently to the screen on my phone. She has never responded to sound on my phone or TV before. She kept trying to nuzzle the phone. Could she miss the pups that maybe didn’t live or were taken from her?

    Reply
  10. chuchu40
    October 21, 2016

    I’ve been thinking about taking my pet “Boog” back to see his parents but wasn
    t sure if it was a good idea or not. If we as humans have a want to go back and see our loved ones, why shouldn’t animals? Thanks for the article!

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      October 22, 2016

      Keep us posted if you decide to do so, I would love to know how it goes!

      Reply
      1. chuchu40
        October 22, 2016

        sure thing!

        Reply

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