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The family that you come from isn’t as important as the family that you’re going to have – Ring Lardner
Where you came from, in most cases, is just as important as where you’re going. Who your family is, what they’ve done, and the impact they’ve had on you can help determine the person you’ll become and the direction your life takes while you’re navigating the choppy waters of everyday existence. Family, as some biologists and genealogists firmly believe, and the way that we perceive it and the relationships that are part of it is everything.
But is that true across the entire animal kingdom? Does family mean the same to other species as it does to humans? Do dogs feel the same way about their parents and siblings as we do? And, after they’re separated from their biological families, do they even remember who they are after they’ve left them to live with us?
That question was one that always bothered us and made us wonder as we passed other beagles while walking our rescue hound if they were somehow related, and would our boy even know if he was walking past one of his brothers or sisters?
After all, prior to him being left in the shelter, we know nothing about our beagle’s history and where he came from, but does he? And if he does, how much does he remember, and would he recognize his immediate canine family if he met one or more of them while he was walking?
It was a question that burned its way into our subconscious and refused to let go, so we decided, once and for all, to find out if dogs remember their parents and their brothers and sisters.
Remembering Where They Came From – A Canine Perspective
When we started to investigate the way a dog remembers his or her biological relationships, we were somewhat relieved to discover that we weren’t the only owners who were consumed by this question and the need to know if our boy remembered his family. It’s actually a common concern among dog obsessives and something that they think about a lot.
It was and is such a common question among owners that the idea was the impetus that Professor Peter Hepper, a respected member of the Psychology faculty at Queens University in Bristol, needed to conduct a fascinating study to determine whether or not dogs could remember their biological families. And it’s Professor Hepper’s research and conclusions, which were first published in nineteen ninety-four, that we’re going to use in order to establish whether or not our four-legged friends think about kinship and relationships in a manner similar to the way that we do, and how, it at all, they recall and recollect their familial bonds.
Can dogs remember their mothers? While it seems like a fairly straightforward and relatively simple question, the answer isn’t quite as clear-cut. The truth is, some dogs do and some dogs don’t, or maybe the dogs that don’t remember actually do but for some reason, choose to ignore the relationship. It seems that dogs, as far as their relationships with their biological families are concerned, are just as complicated as we are.
The first stage of the study that Professor Hepper conducted revolved around immediate recognition, and in order to establish whether or not puppies could immediately recognize their mothers, he used a test group of ten mothers (from three different breeds – German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers) and their fifty seven-month-old offspring in his first elementary trial.
In this test, a mother dog was placed in a crate, at one end of a room, while another female dog of a similar age was placed at the other end of the room. Having been separated from their respective mothers for thirty minutes, the puppies were then placed in the center of the room and allowed to make their way toward each of the females. Out of the fifty-seven puppies and ten mothers that undertook the test, forty-eight of the puppies ventured toward and stayed close to their mothers, while the other nine displayed no discernible preference for either adult dog.
Why did those nine puppies behave the way they did? While the study didn’t offer a definitive answer, as we’ve already mentioned, familiar relationships, even in young canines, can be complex and are just as dependent on individual psychology and identity as they are on nature.
The Mother Puppy Bond – Scent Recognition
One of a dog’s primary senses, which helps them to make their way through the world, is smell. The next stage of establishing how well a young dog remembers their mother was based entirely on smell and scent. In order to ensure that his study would be effective and establish the biological parameters set by this sense, Hepper chose six mothers (the breeds were the same as he used in his previous test) and their thirty-four, month old puppies.
Over the course of two nights, the mothers were separated from their puppies and given blankets to sleep on. The blankets were then taken away and sealed in plastic containers for a period of twenty-four hours. After a day had elapsed, the blanket that a mother dog had slept on was placed at one end of a room, and a blanket taken from another dog was placed at the other end.
The puppies from the litter of the mother whose blanket was being used in the test were then placed in the center of the room and allowed to explore their new environment. Out of the thirty-four puppies tested, twenty-eight showed a direct preference for the blanket that carried their mother’s scent and chose to spend their time around that blanket.
The test proved that at barely five weeks old, dogs are able to recognize their parent based solely on smell, and preferred to spend their time with an item associated with their parent rather than one that wasn’t familiar to them.
Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder
Professor Hepper used time and memory in the next stage of his study and decided to base the final part of his mother and puppy experiment on how well dogs remember each other after an enforced absence. Two years after they had been separated from each other, Hepper used a control group of eighteen mothers (who were, again, chosen by breed and the breeds used were the same as those that used in the two previous experiments) and forty-nine now adult dogs, who had been taken from their mothers and homed at twelve weeks of age.
The test was conducted using the same scent guidelines as the previous one involving month old puppies was, and when the blankets were placed at either end of the room and the offspring of the mother in question were tested, thirty-seven of the forty-nine dogs were attracted to their mothers blanket and recognized her scent. It proved, definitively, that dogs can, and do remember their mothers long after they’ve left them, and that the familial bond between canines is one that continues to linger after they’ve been separated by time and distance.
A Mother’s Memory
To definitely prove his theory, Hepper decided to reverse the conditions of his previous tests in order to find out if mothers remembered their offspring after being separated from them for a similar two-year period.
He applied the same parameters to the test that used blankets on which the now-adult offspring had slept, placed them at either end of a room, and allowed the mothers of those now fully grown dogs to fully explore that room. Without fail, all of the mothers showed a distinct preference for the blankets that their children had slept on, even if they had given birth to another, or multiple, litter(s) of puppies in the intervening period.
The results were, however, not unexpected as Hepper had already deduced that the bond between a mother and her puppies would be stronger than the connection that puppies felt toward their parent.
The relationship between a mother and her puppies is multi-layered and complicated and involves far more than the process of simply giving birth. As well as nurturing her puppies and feeding them for the first two months of their life, while she is nursing them, a mother releases a pheromone called apasine or DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) which helps her puppies to acclimatize themselves to the world and life in general and helps them to calm down.
As puppies are born with their eyes shut, and a muted sense of hearing, their mother is their guide for the first six weeks of their life and makes sure that they’re always safe, clean, well-groomed, and looked after. Everything that a puppy needs in order to survive and thrive is provided by its mother and helps to reinforce the, often lifelong, bond that they share with each other.
Brother And Sisterhood
Hepper also decided to test the boundaries of the sibling relationship between dogs in order to ascertain whether or not they remember their littermates and brothers and sisters. Using the same two-year rule that he’d established in previous tests, Hepper also employed a similar methodology and discovered that after twenty-four months of separation, brothers and sisters from the same litter no longer recognized each other.
He also discovered that, if they weren’t raised together, littermates tended to forget about each other in a surprisingly short amount of time, but that if brothers and sisters were raised together, they tended to form an inseparable connection that lasted for the duration of their lives.
Do You Know Who Your Father Is?
Surprisingly Hepper’s study didn’t take into account the relationship between dogs and their fathers, and whether or not they remembered who their male parents were. It actually took more than twenty years for someone else to step forward and to test whether the paternal bond between dogs was as strong as the maternal one was, and is.
The study to determine the strength of the paternal relationship between dogs was conducted in two thousand and fifteen by psychologists Jennifer Volk and Jennifer Hamilton who applied the same parameters to their study as Hepper had used in his.
Their study involved a test group of fifteen adult dogs, all of whom were around a year old with a similar scent experiment using a blanket from their father instead of their mother. The results were surprising and were entirely dependent on gender. While male dogs tended to be unresponsive and didn’t seem to recognize or didn’t react to their father’s scent, the females did and instinctively seemed to prefer the blankets that were imbued with parents’ scent to the one that didn’t.
As the test was conducted with a relatively small number of participants, both psychologists are determined to repeat it with a larger test group in order to fully and firmly establish their results and find out whether or not the pack dynamic plays any role in the relationship that exists between fathers and their male offspring.
Dogs And Humans – Do They Remember Us?
As we take over the mantle and assume the role and responsibility of a dog’s parent when we welcome them into our homes and families, another interesting proposition and question that often rears its head is, do dogs remember their owners and human companions?
Most dogs and their humans tend to form incredibly tight and long-lasting relationships that are entirely based on mutual dependence and affection. But dogs don’t tend to recognize their owners on sight after they’ve been separated from them for an extended period of time.
When dogs and their owners are reunited after they have been forced to spend time away from each other, the way a dog tends to remember who a person is is the same way that they recognize who their mother is, by scent.
Even though there isn’t an established or definitive period of time that governs how long a dog can recognize their owner based purely on his or her scent, the common consensus among behavioral psychologists seems to be that it lasts at least thirty-nine months.
Having said that, that boundary has been pushed far further, most notably when service dogs are reunited with former handlers when they’re due to finally retire. In some cases, dogs have remembered their owners based purely on the scent for five or six years, which only serves to prove that sometimes poetry is a better judge of psychology than science is, and that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
The Final Verdict
It’s long been established that we remember our dogs based solely on memory and the time that we’re lucky enough to spend with them and the adventures and experiences that we share, but the way that dogs remember each other is far different.
Do dogs remember their biological families? They absolutely do, but it depends on the relationships that exist between them. They don’t remember their siblings, and the bond that exists between them begins to fade almost as soon as they’re parted. And even though it’s only the females who tend to remember the fathers, all dogs instinctively know who their mothers are, regardless of how long they spend apart.