If you've ever had to give up a dog, you've no doubt wondered if your pup will remember you the same way you will remember him for years. Alternatively, if you've ever adopted a dog who had one or more owners before you, you've probably wondered if your dog remembered his past owners, whether they were kind or cruel. While dog memories may not work the same as ours, both scientific and anecdotal evidence indicates that they can remember their previous owners.
How a dog's memory works
Humans have what is known as "episodic memory," which is tied to our sense of time, including artificial measures of time like minutes, hours, and years. We link events to other events and look back on things and say, "I remember eating at that restaurant. It was a few months after I was married."
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Dogs do not relate time to memories. The Dog People says they have what is known as associative memory. They still remember things, but in a much different manner than we do. Dogs remember that when they go on walks, their owner grabs the leash and puts on his shoes. So when they see their owner pick up the leash or put on shoes, they get excited because they think they will go on a walk. They associate the cold metal table at the vet's office with shots or feeling sick, and they feel nervous when they are put on the table.
Dogs evolved using these memories to survive. If a situation puts the dog in danger, the dog needs to remember that situation so she can avoid it in the future. Similarly, the dog needs to remember people who may give her food and a safe place to live as well as people who mistreat her. In other words, it is an evolutionary benefit for dogs to be able to remember people who treat them well or poorly.
Can dogs remember previous owners?
The simple fact that dogs who have been abused by past owners often show fearful or aggressive reactions towards people with similar characteristics — for example, men with beards or women with long ponytails — is a good indicator that dogs can remember their previous owners at least to some extent.
For more positive anecdotal evidence that dogs can remember past owners, you can do an internet search for videos of soldiers returning home after a war. In many cases, these dogs have been left in the care of a friend or family member for years, yet the dog runs to their previous owner, immediately recognizing him.
Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell, PhD. has studied dog memories and has documented two different times where a dog was reunited with a former owner after being rehomed. She says she is certain the dogs both remembered their former owners, although they happily returned to their new family at the end of the visit.
Should dogs see previous owners?
Whether dogs should see previous owners is a complicated question. While Dr. McConnell says she has personally seen a few examples of times that dogs saw their previous owners and it resulted in positive experiences, she warns that not all such visits will be good.
If the past owner abused the dog, the visit would not be good for the dog's mental health, and it could even result in a dangerous situation for the former owner or the dog.
Dr. McConnell's examples both resulted in the dogs seeing their past owners and then gladly returning home with their new families. If the dog and his past owner had a particularly close connection, or if the new owner does not satisfy certain needs of the dog, it is possible the dog will want to live with his former owner again. If this is not a possibility, exposing the dog to his former owner could be more stressful than helpful, leaving the dog to feel abandoned by the person he loves the most.