Human children can usually recognize their parents even after years of separation. As researchers discovered more about dog's recognition abilities, they wondered if adult puppies would recognize their parents, even years later. Studies show dogs can recognize their parents and siblings, but whether that recognition is based on scent or some other factor is still not known for certain.
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Puppies & Their Critical Period
Although adult dogs can recognize close relatives, that ability depends on what happened to the dog as a puppy during a short window of time. The first two to 16 weeks of a puppy's life are known as the critical period because the puppy's experiences during this time shape the adult dog she will eventually become. If the puppy grows up and can recognize her parents in the future, she probably formed a strong bond with them during this critical period. Since father dogs often are not present during this critical period, adult dogs are more likely to recognize their mothers than their fathers.
The Power of Scent
Dogs' olfactory sense is an important tool for gathering information about other dogs. Dr. David Dilmore explains that dogs smell each other because their scent glands give off lots of information and can help dogs recognize familiar dogs. Dr. Lore Haug, a veterinary behaviorist, suspects dogs' powerful olfactory sense helps them recognize related dogs even years after they have been separated. The dogs may not be aware of the relationship or the source of the recognition, but something deep inside them knows the other dog is familiar.
Canine Face Recognition
Dogs may also be able to recognize their parents simply by looking at their faces. Recent studies in canine cognition discovered dogs can distinguish the face of their owners from the faces of strangers and can spot other dogs from among other animals. In a 2009 study, researchers showed dogs sets of photos including familiar and unfamiliar dog faces. They found the dogs stared longer at the photos of dogs they knew, suggesting dogs can use facial cues to distinguish between familiar and unknown canines. This research might provide another explanation as to how adult dogs could recognize their parents.
While adult dogs may be able to recognize their parents, the reverse might not be true. Studies of how dogs recognize human faces showed distinct differences between younger and older dogs. Dogs over 7 years old had shorter attention spans so they had more difficulty focusing on faces. If the findings are also true for senior dogs' recognition abilities for other dogs' faces, older parents may not be able to distinguish their adult puppies from other dogs.
By Amy Jorgensen
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Scientific American: Dogs Recognise Other Dogs in a Crowd
Animal Cognition: Discrimination of Human and Dog Faces and Inversion Responses in Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris)
Animal Cognition: Visual Discriminationi of Species in Dogs (Canis Familiaris)
About the Author
Amy Jorgensen has ghostwritten more than 100 articles and books on raising and training animals. She is also an amateur dog trainer. She has also written more than 200 blog posts, articles, and ebooks on wedding and party planning on behalf of professionals in the field.