Can Dogs Remember Previous Owners?

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Introduction

There is a story of Argos from Homer's The Odyssey. Argos waited 20 years for his owner to return home, had only enough strength to show his affection, then died. This heartbreaking tale brings up a question that many a dog owner has wondered - do dogs remember their previous owners?

There are numerous accounts of military persons who return home to their dogs, who greet them with joy and excitement. But there are also the dogs who are rescued from brutal or neglectful owners and the potential that their memories will impede their ability to adapt to a more loving home. The memories a dog may hold for the previous owner is an important topic for understanding the behavior of the dogs and the trust you build with your pet.

Signs of a Dog Remembering Past Owners

Just as humans may remember persons from their past, so too may dogs. Who do we remember the most? We remember those who treated us extremely well and showed us love. We also remember those who were cruel to us and caused us harm or threatened our safety. It is the same with dogs. They show the strongest signs of recognition with previous owners who treated them well or who treated them poorly. 

These lasting impressions are signified in reactions dogs may have to persons resembling their previous owners. For example, a dog who was mistreated by a man with a beard may act fearful around other men with beards. The memory of the previous owners is also signaled when a dog is excited and happy to greet an owner who has been away for a prolonged period of time.

Context will be important in understanding the body language of the dog when memories of the previous owner are triggered by a scent or other signal of the treatment the dog received in association with that person. If you are dealing with a rescue animal, you may observe that the dog reacts in a certain way with people who have specific physical characteristics, such as gender, facial hair or tone of voice. 

Without knowledge of the dog's history, you may only assume that the dog is recognizing a quality associated with a previous owner. If you know the previous owner, you may find your dog engaged in recognition behaviors when they have the opportunity to reunite. The dog will greet and show signs of excitement if there was a positive relationship.

The dog will show happy greeting behaviors if the relationship was positive with the previous owner. The dog will go to the owner, showing excitement by smiling, licking, and greeting the person. The dog may appear to be inviting interaction by stretching into a play position or roll onto his back, exposing his belly for a good rub. Don't be surprised if the recognition of the previous owner begins with a quick crotch sniff, as that is how dogs remember others. The open, smiling mouth is also a clue that the dog is taking in the previous owner's scent to appreciate the happy reunion.

Body Language

Some signs that indicate your dog recognizes a previous owner are:
  • Alert
  • Whining
  • Jumping up
  • Sniffing
  • Paw raised

Other Signs

Other signs to watch for include:
  • Crotch Sniffing
  • Exposed Belly
  • Open Mouth
  • Smiling
  • Stretching Chest to Ground in Play Position

History of Dogs Remembering Their Previous Owners

The dog-human bond is the result of centuries of evolution. While some believe that man socialized the dog, others believe that the dog has made man more humane. In the excavation of dog remains between 5,000 and 8,000 years old at Lake Baikal, Siberia, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, the dogs were buried next to their humans. 

The dogs were buried with the same regard as humans, often wearing decorative collars or next to items, like spoons, suggesting a belief the dog would share in an afterlife, as beliefs regarding humans. There was evidence the dogs were fed the same diets as the humans. 

The breeding of dogs for specific purposes was occurring in ancient times. There were dogs bred to work and hunt with humans. Even the ancient Romans had lapdogs. This long evolving relationship between man and dog has resulted in brain structures and hormonal reactions making us similar to one another. 

As the relationship between humans and dogs evolved from one of survival to one of companionship, the connection also changed to one of interdependencies and loyalties to those with whom they have shared life experiences.


Science of Dogs Remembering Past Owners

Researchers have been curious about the ability of dogs to bond with humans and the capacity of dogs to remember. Studies have been revealing that man's best friend has physical reactions indicative of love and recall for specific people. When it comes to love, studies have shown that when dogs and their owners stare into one another's eyes, there is a significant increase in oxytocin hormone levels for both species. Oxytocin is the "love hormone". These elevated levels of oxytocin were interpreted as evidence of bonding at a biochemical level and explain the loyalties between dogs and their owners. 

Studies on the memory capacity of dogs have had some mixed findings. It is believed that dogs do not have the episodic memories of humans. In other words, humans associate memories with intervals of time. This explains why a dog will be as excited to see you after 5 minutes as if you had been away all day. 

Other studies have examined if dogs are able to encode and recall behaviors. Indeed, the dogs do show evidence of the ability to form mental representations, indicating they do remember. One very interesting finding is that dogs are able to recognize human faces, both in person and when presented to them in a picture. The parts of the brain that were stimulated were those associated with communication, emotional expression, and storing memories. 

Training Your Dog to Develop a Bond with You

There are things you can do to build a strong bond with your dog. Start by being a good owner who takes care of your pup's physical, health, and safety needs. When you pet your pup, pay attention. Speak gently and be respectful in the handling of your pup, recognizing the pup's needs for attention, play, and rest. 

Spend quality time with your pup engaged in a variety of quality activities such as training, grooming, walking and playing. Use clear and consistent signals and communication commands with your pup. Use praise and positive reinforcement. Pay attention to your dog's body language, likes, and dislikes and respond appropriately. Do not punish your dog or raise your voice. Be consistent and generous with praise.

If you are dealing with a rescue animal who may have unpleasant memories of a previous owner, you may need the assistance of a trainer to help you to know what to do and to develop an individualized plan for your dog and your situation. Do not hesitate to get help to prevent problems. Be aware of raising your hand or your voice, as these may be triggers of abuse and cause your dog to not trust you or to react in ways that are fearful or aggressive. Make your dog feel safe. Be patient. Build trust over time by staying calm and consistent. 

How to React to Your Dog Remembering Past Owners:

  • Understand and respect the experience the dog brings to your relationship.
  • Be patient, kind and calm with your dog.
  • Do not raise your voice or have sudden movements.
  • Keep your dog safe from fearful stimuli.
  • Praise your dog and plan for rewarding experiences.

Safety Tips for Dogs Who Remember Past Owners:

  • Understand triggers from the dog's past and remove those that are threatening.
  • Provide safe places in your home, such as a mat or crate.
  • Teach others how to approach your dog so as not to frighten or overwhelm the dog.
  • Avoid situations that will provoke fear or stress for your dog.