Human children can often recognize their parents, even after years of separation. As researchers discover more about dogs' recognition abilities, they wonder if adult dogs will recognize their parents, even years later. Studies have shown that dogs can recognize their parents and siblings, but whether this recognition ability is based on scent or other factors is still uncertain.
Puppies and their critical period
Although adult dogs can recognize close relatives, this ability depends on what happens in a short period of time as a puppy. The first two to 16 weeks of a puppy's life are known as the critical period because the experiences the puppy has during this time will shape the adult dog it will eventually grow into. If a puppy grows up and recognizes its parents in the future, it may have formed a strong bond with them during this critical period. As the father dogs are not often present during this critical period, the adult dog is more likely to recognize the mother rather than the father.
The power of the sense of smell
A dog's sense of smell is an important tool for gathering information about other dogs. Dr. David Dillmore explains that dogs can smell each other because their olfactory glands send out a lot of information that can help them recognize familiar dogs. Dr. Lore Haug, a veterinary behaviorist, suspects that dogs' powerful sense of smell helps them to recognize related dogs, even after they have been separated for years. Dogs may not know the source of this relationship or recognition, but something deep inside them knows that the other dog is familiar or has some level of relationship with them.
Dogs’ face recognition
Dogs may also be able to recognize their parents simply by looking at their faces. Recent research in canine cognition has found that dogs can distinguish their owner's face from that of a stranger, and can spot other dogs from among a variety of animals. In a 2009 study, researchers showed dogs sets of photographs that included the faces of familiar and unfamiliar dogs. They found that the dogs stared longer at the photos of dogs they knew, suggesting that dogs can use facial cues to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar canines. This study may provide another explanation for how adult dogs recognize their parents.
Age matters as well!
While adult dogs may be able to recognize their parents, the reverse may not be true. Studies of how dogs recognize faces have shown significant differences between younger and older dogs. Dogs over the age of seven have shorter attention spans, so they have more difficulty focusing on faces. Older parents may not be able to distinguish adult puppies from other dogs if the findings are also true for senior dogs' recognition abilities for other dogs' faces.