Do Dogs Remember Their Previous Owners?

By Debra Levy

If you've, sadly, ever had to give up ownership of a dog in the past, the little fella will surely live on in your memory and in the keepsakes you have of him. But will you forever live on in his canine mind? The preponderance of anecdotal evidence suggests they you will, but it probably also depends on the dog and your past relationship with him.

Argos, the Great Dog Who Remembered

Anecdotal evidence supports the idea that dogs do remember previous owners. Argos, as told in Homer's classic, The Odyssey, waits 20 years for his master, Odysseus, to return finally from his worldly travels. As soon as the dog recognizes his long-lost master, he has strength only to drop his ears and wag his tail, and then dies. True, it's a sad story, but it has become a strong metaphor for the faithfulness of dogs.

The Concept of Time & Remembering

Patricia McConnell, PhD, and author of several books about dog behavior, says it seems reasonable that dogs have some sense of time. As proof, she cites a study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science that found that the longer dogs are left alone, the more intense they greet their owners. So time -- even 20 years in the case of Argos! -- doesn't seem to affect a dog's memory of relationships, past and present.

Dog vs. Human Memory

Humans, unlike dogs, have a concept of time known as "episodic memory," using artificial measures of time, like seconds, minutes, and hours, to distinguish events. Also, we tend to remember when something happened by relating it to other events. Dogs, on the other hand, can tell how much time has passed only since the event happened. Still, that doesn't mean dogs can't remember the past, or people from the past.

Survival, Fear & Trust: Reasons to Remember

Dogs remember for other reasons, too. It's commonly believed they remember what they need to in order to survive, or because of fear. Dogs remember past unpleasant or dangerous circumstances to avoid having similar situations in the future. Finally, a type of survival memory is connected to remembering friends, owners, and those people with whom dogs generally feel safe and can trust. Therefore, if a previous owner was kind, the dog may well remember him.

By Debra Levy

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About the Author
Debra Levy has been writing for more than 30 years. She has had fiction and nonfiction published in various literary journals. Levy holds an M.A. in English from Indiana University and an M.F.A. in creative writing/fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars.