5 min read


Can Dogs Tell They are Related?



5 min read


Can Dogs Tell They are Related?


The breeding of dogs has been something that humans have managed for centuries. Top champions have bloodlines and credentials that identify their heritage and relations. Whether your dog is a purebred or a mutt, the pup came into the world as a member of a litter and should have had some quality time with the mother. 

It leads us to wonder if they are able to remember and recognize their relations. If you are fortunate to know your dog's breeder, you might even wonder if it would be fun to plan a family reunion for your mutt and litter mates. But would they even recognize one another as relations? In truth, we just don't know if they can tell their relatives or not!


Signs a Dog Knows Their Relatives

We can't assume that just because dogs cannot talk that they are not able to recognize and greet one another. They have many behaviors and body signals that communicate their friendliness and recognition of dogs, people, and things in their environment. If you pay close attention and get to know the temperament of your pet, you can usually predict how they are reacting in social situations. 

This is good insight for you, as the owner, to keep your pet and others in the situation safe and interacting in positive ways. Watch for signs in the other dogs as well to determine if you need to allow the dogs to enjoy some time together or lead your dog away from potential harm.

Dogs are social creatures. With their propensity to enjoy the company of others, they send very clear signals as to who is the boss and who will need to be more passive in the dog's social order. Social dogs are friendly and will invite one another to interact. 

You can see a friendly invitation to play with the play bow, in which the front legs are extended and the hindquarters are up. You will see the tail up and wagging, usually to the right. The dog might make a happy, yippy bark as if to say, "Let's play". The mouth will be open and the dog may even appear to be smiling. The dog will then leap and bound into a run, then turn and look to the playmate to see if they are going to take turns in joining in the fun.

Dogs will greet one another, and sometimes people too, by sniffing the hindquarters or crotch. It is usually a quick sniff. From there, it can be determined if the dog will take a dominant or submissive stance by the body posture. 

The dominant dog will have a more forward pose, up on the toes. The dog will have ears up and forward. You may see the dog standing over the more submissive dog and even nudge at the other with the nose. 

The submissive dog will be low to the ground. The dog may roll over and expose the stomach. The dog will look away from the more dominant dog. These dominant and submissive behaviors are common in the dog community.

Body Language

Signs that your dog is reacting positively to their relative include:

  • Barking
  • Jumping Up
  • Wag Tail
  • Running
  • Play Bowing

Other Signs

More signs to watch for when your dog meets a relative are:

  • Greeting With Sniffing
  • Dominant-Submissive Interactions
  • Rolling Over To Expose The Stomach
  • Excited Behavior

The History of Dogs Knowing Their Relatives


Dogs are social creatures. In the wild, they live in packs, developing and maintaining a social order from puppy-hood through adulthood. They are born with others in a litter and have their earliest socialization experiences with their closest relations. 

When it comes to their ability to tell if another dog is related to them, that will most likely be dependent on how long the dogs live together. Even then, the recognition may be more a function of familiarity than the ability to know a relative by appearance, scent or other cues. 

In other words, when a dog is recognizing, it could be just that - familiarity. It does not mean the dog has a comprehension that the other dog was a littermate or parent. Remember, too, that dogs do not have morality like humans. They will mate with family members without awareness of relation. 

Once the dog becomes a member of your human family and a member of your pack, you may find that your dog has some amazing abilities to remember and recognize you. Dogs will respond emotionally to reunions with owners. It is likely that the recognition of owners is attributable to the constant positive interactions.

The Science of Dogs Knowing Their Relatives


The problem is that we do not know if dogs can tell their relations.  Peter Hepper, a researcher at the Queen's University of Belfast, Ireland, studied this very question.  He found that puppies could recognize the smell of littermates for a month or so, but after a separation of two years, they did not know one another. It seems that the dogs were, however, able to recognize the scent of their mothers. 

There have been accounts of pups who continued to have play dates. These dogs recognize one another by scent. There really is no clear evidence that dogs have strong family ties. If you are fortunate to know the owners of your dog's relations, it might just be a good excuse to arrange a play date to enjoy some romping good fun with your extended dog-lover family.

Letting Your Dog Interact with Relatives


You and your dog can enjoy a fun day of play with new relations at the dog park. There are things for you to consider when planning your trip so that you and your playful pooch can have a positive experience. 

First, the dog park is not for everyone. It is not the best place for dogs that are naturally shy or overwhelmed. There are health risks when dogs are in the same area. For example, the risk of fleas spreading is real. Your dog could get injured if there is a dogfight. Make sure your dog is vaccinated before you go. Unfortunately, people can misbehave at the dog park.

The dogs who will benefit the most are well-socialized, young dogs who need to burn some energy, are healthy dogs, and those who have been neutered or spayed. Do not take dogs in heat, young pups or undersocialized or fearful dogs to the park. Know your dog's personality, A bully dog or dork is going to have social problems. 

Visit the dog park and look for features that will create an optimal play day. The best parks have fences with secure gates, enough space for everyone, clean up stations, water and shelter areas, as well as a separate area for small dogs. 

Before you go - teach your dog to come when called. Teach yourself how to read canine body language so that you can keep an informed eye on how it's going. 

When you arrive at the park, check out the activities before you enter with your dog. If you see dogs fighting or other interactions that concern you, do not go. Do not just walk into the park. Hang around at the perimeter so the dogs will not rush your dog when you enter. 

Don't just stay in one place. Every few minutes or so, move to stand in new areas and take your dog to play in different locations to prevent the dogs from getting overstimulated. Be observant. If you see behavior getting intense, step in and remove your dog from the situation. Or, call it a day and leave the park. 

By being observant and using discretion in the oversight of your dog and the park, you can have a fun romp and make new friends!

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Written by a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 06/11/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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