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Do Dogs Forget Their Puppies?

Written by Ella White

Updated

Golden retriever mum and pup

If you’ve ever purchased a new puppy from a breeder, you might have wondered whether their mother will miss them and remember them after they’re gone. After all, for humans it’s hard to imagine giving away your baby at 8 weeks and then forgetting about them.

But since dogs mature at a different rate to humans, and their minds and memories operate in different ways, their response to being separated from their puppies is different to ours. However, in the two to three months mother and pup spend together it’s still possible for them to form a lasting bond.

In this article we will look at whether dogs forget their puppies, if dogs remember their mothers, and how to tell if your dog recognizes their parents.

Do Dogs Remember Their Mothers?

As pack animals, dogs are used to socializing as part of a hierarchy and as such, their parents may not be the natural ‘leaders’ of their families – which is why they adapt so well to human families. But that doesn't mean they don’t remember their mothers at all.

The way dogs perceive and remember events and the people or animals around them is different to how we perceive and remember things as humans. They have an associative memory that is best at remembering repeated events or scenarios. 

Dogs also have 300 million olfactory cues in their nose which helps them detect scents. This is how they learn their mother’s smell and, combined with their associative memory, means they can retain information about their mothers for up to two years without seeing them again.

By comparison, humans have just 6 million olfactory cues and are 40% worse at detecting things by smell than dogs. But Since our memories are stronger and form in a more linear way, our associations with people – including our parents – can be formed on one strong memory alone rather than repeated occurrences. 

However, some studies have indicated that dogs presented with a cloth covered in their mother’s scent will spend more time sniffing it than they would other materials. This implies that they are able to recognize something familiar in the scent even after a longer time apart from their mother.

Do Dogs Remember Their Puppies

We already know that smell and repeated memory associations help puppies remember their mothers, and the same science applied to mother’s remembering their young. 

However, since dog parents are older, have formed far more associative memories with ‘good’ things, and may have had multiple litters, their memory of their pups – who only have their mother to remember – may be different.

According to a 2013 study, dogs do have long-term memory which means they should be able to recognize their puppies. However, this will depend on how long they have been separated. 

It’s also influenced by how strong the bond was between mother and pup during their time together, and the individual memories of each dog. Like humans, some dogs have much weaker memories than others and may never recognise their pups if they were to meet them later in life.

How Do Puppies Bond With Their Mothers?

Dogs bond with their young through a biochemical process called imprinting. Like humans, dogs create a hormone called oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone’ that is released when they develop positive feelings with another dog – like their puppies. 

This imprinting helps them develop positive associations between the scent and appearance of their puppies, which will trigger oxytocin and help both puppy and mother maintain some familiarity after they are separated.

The stronger the imprint, the more likely they are to form a strong bond that will last later into life. However, if mother and puppy fail to develop a strong bond then they will be more likely to forget one another. This can happen if a puppy is weaned too early, or something disrupts their environment during their bonding process.

How Can You Tell If A Dog Remembers Their Mother?

If your dog does have the opportunity for a family reunion, there are some signs that will help you understand whether or not they recognize their mother and how happy they are to see her. 

You might expect leaping and playing, but in reality there are more subtle signs that dogs will display to indicate that they remember one another.

Change in Posture

When mother and her offspring approach one another, keep an eye on signals that one dog is establishing dominance and the other is assuming a submissive posture. If they recognize one another, the mother should be dominant while the pup should be submissive.

The dominant dog will appear alert with stiff legs and tail and pointed ears. The submissive dog will assume a more friendly posture, like exposing their belly, flattening their ears, tucking their tail, and even closing their eyes.

Relaxation

When your dog has been introduced to their mother, check whether they appear to be relaxed. If they are happy to approach or be approached, they will have a straight tail, pointed ears, and their mouth may be open with the tongue hanging out.

Bowing

You might have noticed your dog play bowing before as it's a signal they use to let others know they’re open for playtime. Usually their back end will stay up while their front legs stay down, similar to the downward dog position. 

They might still have their tail up and mouth open from their previous relaxed body language. This bow position is usually quickly followed by running, jumping, and playing.

Will Male Dogs Mate with Their Mothers?

While the idea of a mother and their offspring mating in the human world is near unimaginable, dogs do not subscribe to the same set of ethics as us. In fact, for dogs the idea that a parent and offspring cannot mate would be totally alien.

Even if a dog and his mother recognize one another, they may still mate and even produce a litter together. Among dogs there is no societal or genetic code that tells them this is ‘wrong’ the way it does for humans. However, like with humans, the offspring of related adult dogs can result in health issues.

For this reason, it is advised that a mother dog is not allowed to mate with her son whether they recognize one another or not. This cross-breeding can lead to congenital disabilities in puppies and should not be passed on.