Do Adopted Dogs Remember Their Previous Owners?

Years ago, I recall sitting in the car with my parents and recently adopted Yellow Labrador, Reilly, at our local drive-in. We all enjoyed a burger and fries (Reilly, with his own treats). It was a warm Summer day, and we had the windows to the car open. People were coming and going, and occasionally families or those venturing solo walked by the car as we ate. Even though Reilly was fairly new to our family – for about a year or so – he never showed any signs of aggression towards us, nor any strangers for that matter. Like many dogs, he loved attention and enjoyed the company of people. The Animal Rescue League, where we had adopted him from, didn’t provide much information at the time of adoption, other than he was six months old and had previously belonged to a Mennonite family. We felt proud to have stumbled upon such a magnificent dog.

As our meal came to an end, we gathered up our trash and were about to leave the parking lot when a Mennonite woman walked by the side of the car. People of this demographic are common in the area that we live. Reilly, without hesitation, lunged towards the window with his teeth snarling and he began to bark. We couldn’t believe it! Our sweet boy had never done anything like this before! The woman jumped, seemingly startled by the event, and quickly continued on her way. Reilly followed her presence to the back window of the car and remained in his current state until my father managed to grab his collar in effort to divert his attention. Once the woman was out of sight, Reilly returned to the happy-go-lucky state that we always knew him to be in; affectionate and eager for any morsel of “people food” we would present to him.

This perplexing event led us to question, do adopted dogs remember their previous owners?

We’ve all seen the reunion videos on social media of military placed owners who had left home for extended periods of time. When they finally return home, they are reunited with not only their spouses and children, but their beloved mutts who are just as excited to see them; maybe even more. Whether it was two months or two years, it’s clear that man’s best friend doesn’t forget us. We expect our pets will remember us when there is has been a gap of time; so why wouldn’t our pets wouldn’t remember their previous owners?

Dr. Patricia McConnell, PHD, Certified Animal Behaviorist and author of several books related to dog behavior, believes that dogs remember their previous owners, however they don’t remember in the same capacity as people do. Whereas humans tend to remember episodically; meaning we remember things in parts, sections, or episodes, such as in months, years, events, etc., a dog’s memory is associated with experiences; the good or the bad. They remember how they felt when their owner praised them for “going” outside, just as they remember when they were scolded for “going” in the house. These memories can be directly related to how they were treated by their previous owners and they retain information when it comes to their survival. An abused dog will remember the person that hurt or neglected them, therefore they learn to stay away from that person. Likewise, a dog that was fed and loved will know that that person is safe.

But how do dogs recognize new or previous owners? Just like people, dogs are able to recognize their owners with sight and can decipher between them and a close family member or friend; even a stranger.  Just like Reilly’s previous owner, who was Mennonite, he may have remembered characteristics of them, and when confronted with someone (who may or may not have been his previous owner), he knew that he didn’t feel safe. It’s possible that his previous owner wore a covering on her head in ordinance of her religion and that could have been what startled him. It’s clear that wherever he came from, he was not treated well, unfortunately.

As we know, dog’s have a keen sense of smell, and it is often used as a tool for survival. This too is a way that they recognize their owners. Have you ever encountered a pup who had lost their eyesight? They learn to rely on their sense of smell to move safely throughout the house and they know when the owner is close by. Studies have proven that a dog will remember, and even learn to love the scent of their owner. It has been shown through experiments that dogs have an emotional reaction to the scent of their owner than with other people whom they are not familiar with, and this explains that dogs have a tremendous connection with their humans. It can be attributed to dogs feeling safe, loved, and praised within their household. And who wouldn’t like to feel this way in any relationship; furry or otherwise?

If the next time you take your furry friend out for a walk and you find that they randomly bark at a stranger, instead of saying, “I’m sorry, he never does that,” maybe ask yourself if there is any correlation between that stranger and their previous owner. Dogs are bright and emphatic creatures, and just like humans, they have reasons for what they do. We just need to listen to them.

Photo by Mariana

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