Whether it's just one day at work or a week's vacation, sometimes humans have to leave our furry friends behind for a while. We undoubtedly miss them and can't wait to see them again, but do they miss us just as much? They will greet us with doggy licks and a breathy "hello" but they always do that, right? Is this nothing more than a normal greeting or do dogs truly miss us?
Does My Dog Miss Me When I'm Gone?
Do dogs really miss us when we're gone?
The short answer is: yes, dogs miss us when we're gone. In a series of experiments called The Dog Project, Gregory Berns, Ph.D., M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, found that dogs indeed love their humans. The dogs in the study were trained to keep still enough to go into an MRI. In one round of experiments, Berns exposed dogs to different scents: their own, the scents of familiar and strange humans, and the scents of familiar and strange dogs. The data from this particular part of the study has not been released but Berns believes his observations lead to a smoking gun that can conclude dogs do love their humans. Combining the knowledge of dogs loving their humans and a dog's perception of time leads to the belief that dogs do in fact miss us when we're gone.
Dog's perception of time.
In 2011, Therese Rehn and Linda Keeling reported the effects of leaving a dog alone after different periods of time. After two hours, dogs greeted their owners with greater intensity than after only 30 minutes of being left alone. There was, however, no difference in behavior between two and four hours. Dogs can tell the difference between 30 minutes and two hours, but things get unclear beyond there. Your dog will basically just know if you've been gone for a "long time." The excited greeting you get after being away for two hours may be the same as a greeting after five hours but will definitely be more intense than after 30 minutes of being away.
Research published in Current Biology shows that dogs have episodic memories — memories of specific days and events that stick out. It's been believed for years that dogs did not have this type of memory, but it turns out your pup can have special memories of his own. Hurray! The memories may not last in the long term, but it is possible for him to remember specific events or days. If you are away from your pup, he may dream about the "good times" although these memories (like a human's memory) won't usually last.
How do dogs understand absence of their owners?
If you leave for work at the same time and come home around the same time every day, your dog should adjust to this schedule. At first, your neighbors may tell you they heard your dog crying but eventually, your dog should learn that you will return home. Dogs are very social animals that need ample stimulation. It is important not to leave your dog alone for too long and make sure he is getting enough exercise.
Knowing your specific dog's requirements is essential to keeping him happy and healthy. If dogs don't really discriminate between two hours gone and four hours gone, he will just know that you're ... gone. If this is part of a daily routine, he should be just fine. Longer periods away like going on a trip will be a break from the routine and can leave your dog in minor distress. It is important to leave your dog with a loving caregiver that will keep him safe, fed and mentally stimulated. Every dog is different but anecdotal evidence will show that if your dog is left in good hands, he should be just fine while you're away. But don't worry, you can still expect that extra excited greeting upon your return.
How long can a dog remember a person?
How long a dog remembers a person usually depends on how that person treated the dog. Dogs use their memory as a survival and safety tool. They will remember dangerous people, places, or situations in order to avoid them (as best they can) in the future. If you have a rescued dog with an abusive past, he clearly won't miss his previous owners but he will make sure to remember them as a means of survival. On the bright side, a dog will also remember owners and friends that were kind and trustworthy. These memories teach the dog what types of people to gravitate towards in the future (although memory aside, a dog will learn pretty instinctively whom to trust).
If a dog is coming from a dangerous past, he can remember a previous harmful owner for a long time, sometimes even years. This is merely a tool he uses to keep himself safe but a new and loving environment is his best tool for forgetting a painful past. A healthy environment will teach him what a loving relationship between human and pup should look and feel like.
Signs your dog misses someone.
When your dog misses someone, he will give you small clues that he's unhappy. If your spouse goes away on a trip, for example, you may notice your dog sniffing their clothes or chewing on their shoes. They will examine a loved one's belongings and wondering, "Where did they go?"
Leaving your dog alone for a short period of time is much different than leaving forever. Under the unfortunate circumstances of an owner passing away, a dog may have changes in his behavior, becoming listless or disinterested in things that were once favorite pastimes. His social nature may decrease, and he may seem to be waiting for his human to return. Poor pup! When a dog is heartbroken, he will most likely display altered behavior, showing that he absolutely misses his human.
What to do when a dog misses their owner.
If the dog is mourning a deceased owner, you want to show him comfort without reinforcing unwanted behaviors. It is tempting to give a grieving dog lots of attention when he is moping or crying but you don't want to teach the dog that this behavior will be constantly rewarded. Mourning is natural after any loss, but if the symptoms persist for weeks, consult with a veterinarian as soon as possible, especially if the dog isn't eating. With the vet's help, you can come up with a plan to get a grieving dog back to his normal disposition and behavior.
Will my dog miss me if I give him away?
As a loving pup parent, sometimes you realize your home may not be the best place for your dog. You've surly accumulated many great memories with your pet that left him feeling loved and secure. Your dog will most likely miss you for a bit if you give him away. Good puppy parents are hard to forget! But, if you're sending your dog to a new, equally loving home, his love is sure to grow and include the members of his new family. If you ever come across your pet years later, a change in your appearance may make it difficult for him to remember you or your scent will have him leaping and licking you like not a day has passed. Either way, making sure his new owners are just as loving is key.
Us humans tend to anthropomorphize our pets. We assume they think, remember, and play just like us. That's not always the case, but they absolutely remember us and miss us whenever we part, whether for a short period of time or forever.