Do Dogs Remember Their Previous Owners?

Key Points

  • There is no concrete answer to how long will a dog remember its owner.

  • If a previous owner made a big impact on a dog's life, they most likely remember that person.

  • Dogs have a different type of memory than humans, called associative memory.

  • Despite not knowing how long will a dog remember its owner, live in the present and make loving memories while you're able to.

If you've rescued a dog, especially an older one, you've probably wondered how long will a dog remember its owner. If you were to pass your dog's former owners on the sidewalk, would your dog react in an unusual way? Do dogs think about their previous families randomly throughout the day?

While you'll never know exactly what your dog is thinking, a lot of what goes on behind those puppy dogs eyes will always be a mystery. Scientists and canine behaviorists have done studies on canine memory, though. You can't know for sure, but evidence supports the theory that dogs do indeed remember their previous owners.

How much they remember and whether or not they think about them regularly is still up in the air. If your dog has lived with more than one family, there's a good chance they remember those important people from their past life.

remember previous owners

Associative Memories

The key to knowing whether or not dogs remember previous owners is understanding how a dog's memory works.

While humans have what's called episodic memory, dogs think a little differently. When you think about something that happened in the past, you most often think about it in terms of time. You know whether the event happened a few minutes ago or a few years ago. We use our artificial measurements of time to place events in the past and keep them in order.

Dogs don't do that. Instead of thinking about an event based on time, they use associations. This is referred to as an associative memory. Instead of remembering that they went on a walk two hours ago, your dog remembers that they went on a walk right after you stood up from the couch and got your shoes. They also remember how happy they felt when you both were outside together strolling down the sidewalk. Going forward, your dog will remember those positive emotions in association with the behaviors and actions that led up to the walk.

remembering previous owners

Memories for Survival

The difference between human and canine memory is related to the fact that dogs don't tell time in the same way we do, but it's also based on their basic survival instinct.

As dogs evolved, they needed to learn how to avoid danger. An associative memory helped with this by highlighting everything that either put them at risk or kept them safe. Your dog's ancestors used their memories to find food and fend for themselves, but even today's pampered pets use their associative memories to stay safe.

For example, dogs can associate certain people with different emotions. If a person is consistently kind to them, they'll relate that person to positive feelings. If a person abuses or scares them, they'll remember those traumatic events and avoid that person in the future.

Remembering Previous and Current Owners

Rescue dogs, and other dogs who have lived with multiple families, use associative memories to remember all the different people in their lives.

With anecdotal evidence alone, we can see that dogs both remember and recognize people they haven't seen for extended amounts of time. Some popular examples of this are dogs that are reunited with their military moms and dads. You can tell by the way the dogs bark, jump, and wag their tails that they remember their owners, even if they were away for a year or longer. It's obvious that with these reunions, the dogs are associating their long-lost humans with positive emotions and happy experiences.

What if life takes you away from your furry friend for as long as five or seven years? As long as your dog has the senses that help them remember — such as seeing, smelling, and hearing — changes are they'll always remember you.

There is also evidence of dogs remembering humans when those past owners were unkind or abusive. It's fairly common for rescue dogs that come from traumatic backgrounds to adopt behaviors related to past experiences. If they were repeatedly abused by the previous owner⁠ — say a man with a long beard — there's a good chance they'll remember that person and react poorly every time they see a man with a beard, even if it's a different person every time. It's hard to tell whether the dog thinks every man with a beard is the same person who inflicted the abuse, or maybe the sight of a similar-looking person brings up bad memories that the dog can't ignore.

A Lasting Impression

Based on this evidence, many behaviorists have a theory that dogs only remember people who make a lasting impression. That impression can be either positive or negative,  but the associated emotions need to be especially strong to stand the test of time. Therefore, dogs are likely to remember past owners whom they either bonded with or were afraid of. Someone who fell somewhere in the middle, however, might not have made a lasting impression.

Do Dogs Miss Their Owners?

Whether it's just a really long day at work, or an extended trip out of the country, you've probably also wondered if your dog misses you. You might pull up pictures of the two of you together while away, but what do dogs do if they miss you?

You've probably noticed that your dog greets you differently, depending on the amount of time you've been away. This suggests that dogs do miss their owner if they are gone for an extended period of time.

Who Is Your Dog's Favorite?

If you've rescued a pup, you might find yourself wondering if your dog preferred their other family to you. Or, perhaps, your dog grew up in a house full of people — there was always somebody playing and petting and feeding them. So, do dogs know who their primary owner is?

Yes and no.

Dogs know who their primary owner is but, interestingly enough, that doesn't always mean that's their favorite person. Dogs select their favorite person based on a number of factors. This could be anything from who or what they were socialized with during their formative puppy months, attention and affection, to just a personality match.

Live In The Present

Since many rescue dogs bounce between different homes before finding their forever home, they may not remember previous owners. It's probably just not long enough for them to make any associative memories connected to individual people.

If your dog spent years with the same person or went through a particularly traumatic experience in a short period, however, there's a good chance they remember their past owners. They would also probably recognize that person and react accordingly. While you'll likely never meet your dog's previous owners, you can't know for sure if they remember them or not.

What you do know, though, is that your dog loves you and is happy to be part of your family. Live in the present, not the past.

Do you know how dogs choose their favorite humans? Find out here.

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