Can Dogs Recognize Human Family Members?

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Introduction

Do you have a hard time putting names with faces? This is potentially a problem with people you don't know well, but with your own family, it's probably not an issue at all. Could all of your family members say the same for you? 

Probably if you grew up together or see each other often, but there's one family member you might not be thinking of - your pup! So, do you think your pooch can tell you and your family members apart from other humans?

Signs Your Dog is Comfortable or Uncomfortable with Someone

While it's important to keep In mind that all dogs react to people differently, there are a few general things you can watch for. A few things you might notice if your pooch is comfortable with someone, include wagging their tail and barking excitedly. 

It's interesting to note that it seems like dogs' barks sound different depending on their mood - much like humans' tones of voices. So, if you hear your pup barking excitedly, they probably recognize the person in front of them. They might also jump up on you and try to lick you to greet you. Their ears will be up, and their body language will likely be noticeably excited.

If your pooch isn’t comfortable with someone, you might notice them barking at the person but not wagging their tail or jumping up on them. Once they've given the new person a good sniff, and they've been reassured by you that everything is alright, they might leave your friend alone. 

However, if your dog feels threatened, they might put their ears back and growl at the person. If your dog starts acting aggressively, it's important to get them away from the new person. It is also important to note that if your dog is just excited to meet new people, they might exhibit some of the signs listed above but seem really happy otherwise to meet the person.

Body Language

Here are some signs you might notice if your dog  is comfortable with someone:
  • Barking
  • Jumping up
  • Wag tail
  • Licking
  • Ears up

Other Signs

Here are some signs you might notice if your dog is uncomfortable with someone:
  • Aggressive barking
  • Tail down
  • Ears back
  • Growling

History of Dogs Recognizing Family Members

Historically, dogs have descended from wolves. Wolves are pack animals. According to a Huffington Post article written in March of 2015, dogs and humans are alike in that we live in groups, and it's critical to recognize all of the members of the group to function properly.  

Until recently, researchers thought that only humans and maybe primates understood facial recognition. However, it turns out that dogs might too! That’s right, your pup may know your face.

There are many cute videos on the internet about dogs being reunited with their owners after long leaves of absence (maybe either on trips or military tours). It’s interesting as you watch these to note that the dogs often don’t even seem cautious or have to sniff their owners every time they approach them. 

They either know before they see them and are barking at the door, or they see their owner and are jumping up on them the second they walk in. This points to dogs using different senses to determine who has arrived, and if that person is important.

Science Behind Dogs Recognizing Family Members

Looking at the science behind this theory points out several different ways a dog determines who is in front of them. The Huffington Post article mentioned earlier goes on to say that there was a study done by researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland that was published in the Animal Cognition journal. They used dogs of varying backgrounds.

So, some lived with families, while others didn’t. Some interesting findings included that dogs were especially interested in the eyes on faces, pups were more interested in other dogs’ faces, and dogs that lived with families were more interested in human faces than dogs living in kennels were. They tested other abilities like dogs being able to distinguish faces when the pictures were upside down, too. Ultimately, however, they concluded dogs can, in fact, recognize facial features.

Of course, theoretically, there are other factors that determine if a dog knows you and your family members. Because of their strong senses, they can discern a lot of things, even if you aren’t in the same room. Dogs are amazing at studying and remembering things like people’s routines and noises. If you sit and listen to your family members as they come home for the day, you might understand this. 

Does your brother have a weird sounding shuffle walk? Does your mom’s purse make a certain sound? These are all things that an observant dog might pick up on and note to know who has arrived home. Also, people have unique smells and dogs have an amazing sense of smell. So, even if you haven’t walked into the room yet, your pup might smell you and come running.

Training Your Dog to Recognize Others

So, can you actually train your dog to identify family members? Dogs are amazing and can be trained to do a myriad of things. With that being said, some sources point to dogs being able to be trained to successfully identify faces. However, it’s more likely that your pup will be able to identify family members all on their own - no training required!

If you want to get your dog more used to a new friend or new family member, a lot of it is having them spend time together. Have them play with the new person, or cuddle with the new person if your dog is cuddly. Maybe even let the new person feed your dog so the dog knows that person can give them food and treats. 

A lot of the time, dogs are like humans - we just need to get used to new people. In most cases, eventually, your pup will observe and learn the habits and smell of the new person. If your dog really doesn’t like the new person, don’t push it, though. Seek help from a professional trainer or your vet. You don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable or to get hurt.

So, can dogs recognize their human family members? The evidence points to yes.

Staying Safe Around New People:

  • Let your dog get used to the new person.
  • Let them sniff the new person and spend time with them.
  • If your dog is uncomfortable with someone, no matter what you do, do not push them. Speak with a trainer or your vet.