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Dogs have memories of their relatives, but you can help by making them feel safe

Since many puppies are separated from their mothers and siblings early in life, people often wonder how this separation will affect them emotionally. Fortunately, according to a study published in the journal Behavioral Processes, in the case of dogs separated from their siblings at eight to 12 weeks of age, the memory of their siblings appears to wane in about two years, although that of their mothers is often much more persistent.

“It makes sense that dogs have a strong recognition of their mother, as they are an altricial species. This means that the young are underdeveloped at birth, but with the aid of their parents, they mature,” explained Britt Rosendahl, a dog behaviorist and training specialist at the Woodgreen Pets Charity.

“Survival mainly depends on the mother, so recognition of the mother is crucial. Altricial animals are wired this way, which could be a reason why they are more likely to recognize their mother compared to their siblings.”

Limited memories

Dogs’ memories and emotions work quite differently from ours, allowing them to deal more efficiently with separation and quite easily bond with other conspecifics, as well as humans. 

Although studies have shown that dogs have an episodic memory too, allowing them to remember specific events from their past, this capacity seems fairly limited, diminishing the extent of separation-induced traumas and emotional issues.

Nevertheless, veterinary doctors argue that puppies should not be separated from their relatives earlier than three months after their birth, in order to avoid behavioral and emotional problems later in life. 

Early development is critical 

During their first weeks of life, socialization with other dogs is crucial to develop motor skills, bite control, problem-solving abilities, and resilience to stress. Thus, separation and social isolation during this critical developmental period could lead to anxiety, possessiveness, and aggression during maturity.

As Rosendahl argues, although leaving the safety and familiarity of their mother and littermates and transitioning to a new home will likely cause dogs some stress or even be a daunting experience, this is not necessarily because they miss their siblings, but rather due to the fact that a novel environment will force them to get used to different smells, sights, sounds, routines, and people. 

“Every puppy is different and will adjust to their new environment at their own pace. Some puppies may settle in quickly, while others may take a few weeks to adjust. During this transition period, let them decompress in their own time,” she said.

Steps to make your dog feel safe

In order for dogs to easily adapt to their new environments, owners should help them feel safe and secure and try to meet all of their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs. 

According to dog trainer and behavioral consultant Jennifer Malaway, steps to help dogs feel comfortable in a new setting include creating a dynamic, stimulating environment consisting of gates, crates, and pens that can be used for play and exploration. Malaway says to also provide a “zen zone” such as a cozy crate, where the dogs can rest quietly when they need a break.

Other steps suggested by Malaway to make a dog feel safe include: establishing healthy, predictable routines for walks, meals, and playtime; avoiding uncomfortable interactions with other dogs or humans; training with positive reinforcement rather than punishments; learning the basics of canine body language to better understand their cues; and setting aside some time for puppy socialization if the dogs are younger than 20 weeks of age. 

Recognizing and supporting a puppy’s needs could help owners build deep, loving bonds with their pets that could last a lifetime.

More about dog memories 

Dogs have a type of memory known as “associative memory.” This means that they can remember and associate specific actions with specific outcomes. For example, if a dog gets a treat every time it sits on command, it will remember that sitting when told results in getting a treat.

However, a dog’s memory works differently than human memory. Humans have episodic memory, meaning we can remember specific events, places, people, and times. Dogs can’t remember specific events in detail and can’t anticipate future events based on past experiences in the same way humans can.

A study published in 2016 suggests that dogs may have a type of episodic-like memory, but this is different from the complex episodic memory that humans have. In the study, dogs were trained to imitate human actions even after a delay, which suggests they could remember what they had observed. But this isn’t the same as remembering a sequence of events or anticipating the future based on those events.

Dogs do have a strong sense of routine and can remember and anticipate daily routines like meal times, walk times, and the time their owner usually comes home. This is more a form of associative memory than episodic memory.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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