How Do Dogs Understand Absence of their Owners

According to hundreds of dog greetings videos, it certainly seems like dogs can understand when their human owners return home from a long absence.

Recently, countless dog videos have gone viral of soldiers returning home and their pets reacting by crying, fainting, and even seeming to laugh. But do dogs really understand what it means to miss someone?

Do dogs truly feel the excitement and overwhelming joy of experiencing an owner’s return after months or years of them being gone as we believe they do?

Science has proven that similar to humans, dogs remember things the clearest when there are strong emotional ties to the memories. The average dog has approximately the same emotional competency of a three year old child.

They can feel basic emotions like happiness, love, and anger. Dogs can even be surprised or scared.

However, they do not have the ability to feel the more complex social emotions that humans can, like guilt, shame, or a sense of pride.

It is then quite plausible that dogs really do understand what it is like to genuinely miss someone when they are gone; they just probably don’t understand the full extent of the absence.

The emotional life of a dog—the entire mental life of the dog—is very close to a human two- or three-year-old. A two- or three-year-old will have love and joy and fear and anger and surprise, but they tend not to have the higher social emotions like guilt … pride, shame, that sort of thing,” [source]

Studies Show Dogs Recognize by the Smell

A new study, which was published in Pacific Standard earlier this year [1], demonstrated that when a dog smells a familiar human, there is a specific area of their brain that is being triggered.

Dogs use the smells, sights, sounds, and other sensations that are provided by humans to distinguish one person from another. When the sensations of a certain person are activated, a dog will behave in the way they usually do around that human. It may be shown as a special greeting, sniffing the person’s pockets if they usually bring treats, or barking a welcome.

Typically, when a dog’s owner leaves, they go through a grieving period and, much like people, it can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.

Because we cannot communicate with our pets and let them know when we will be back, a lengthy separation becomes an unpredictable loss to them, and a true anxiety problem.

Dog’s Comprehension of Time Frames

Studies have not been performed to see just how long it takes for dogs to realize that their owner is absent, but it is evident that they will ultimately see it as a loss if they don’t return within a certain period of time.

What we do know is this: dogs are creatures of habit. When you leave every day for work at 8 a.m. and you return around 6 p.m. every night, your dog will certainly be happy upon your return, but they are also expecting it. If the absence is extended, the dog may sense that it is an unusual circumstance and react more strongly when you return.

Another factor that may affect their level of excitement is the other humans that are present when you come home.

When you return from work, your family is happy to see you, but it is nothing out of the ordinary for them. When you return from an extended absence, your family will react much stronger, thus the dog may sense that and react more strongly too. At this point though, this is just a speculation.

Evidence shows that they will remember you for a very long time. The bond between the owner and the dog leaves a lasting impression in their memory. It is quite possible that they are thinking about you while you are gone just as much as you think about them.

There’s no doubt that dogs have very specific memories. They recognize individuals. There’s a lot wrapped up in that relationship of care, love, and affection. If a dog’s caretaker leaves for a long period of time, it will likely go through a grieving period. It’s a loss—an unpredictable loss—because the person can’t say, ‘I will be back in two weeks.” – Marc Bekoff, co-founder of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

In conclusion, there is no need to worry that your dog will forget you while you are gone for an extended time period.

References:

  1. Berns GS et al. Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors. Behav Processes. 2014 Mar 6. pii: S0376-6357(14)00047-3. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011

18 COMMENTS

  1. I agree it is, as someone who is going through this right now my heart is breaking in to a million pieces,I recently left the USA and returned to the UK after a broken marriage leaving behind my 11 yr old male Yorkie he is with my soon to be ex and i just could not take him with me but he is my dog, so i am sad that he is missing me, feel so guilty he is probably wondering where i am, not a day goes by i do not miss him and cry.

    • Aww that’s so sweet. Dogs do really miss us as much as we miss them. It is called love and surely love… Love is something that every living thing has… we as humans over think love. You can fall in love with your dog.

  2. My mom and dad left from Toronto Ontario To Mexico from dec 13-March 17th. and i’m taking care of 2 dogs… One is a newfie/Lab. and a husky/retriever/little wolf, not sure.. My dog Buff the Husky is crying right now… Just little moans and grones here and there the last hour or so… I don’t know what she’s crying at. he is laying down behind my chair. by the sliding door, still making small crying sounds. I do Believe maybe he is missing my mom and dad. However, the best thing is to stay possative and keep petting the dog and loving them, that’s all I can do… I’m really emotional as a person who battled with depression and is much better bow. I can always sence something in others and animals… I love my dogs dearly, and perhaps my dogs are missing them. I don’t know if it’s a good Idea to sit down with the dogs and do a video skype to my parents. well All you need is Love as Lennon said. Now I’m gonna give the dogs a cookie and go for a smoke…

  3. I was offered a consulting job in Belise for two months at a resort on the beach. Heaven. I turned it down, I never could leave my golden retriever that long . My heart would ache everyday and there would be no way I could enjoy it. Jack and I live alone and I have given up many things I favor of being with him. Like the article said, you can’t tell a dog you’re coming back. I’ve never considered my choices a sacrafice. I love my dog more than I can articulate. I’m a 61 year old man and he is my unconditional best friend.

  4. My son will be gone for about 7 to 8 years. Will his Rott remember him? She was 4 when he left. I am hoping she wont forget him. He loves her so much and is worried she will forget him.

  5. the caretaker of my house isnt excited or happy at all at my return but my dog goes wild, crying, whining hysterically when im gone for long periods of time.
    It is like she was afraid i was dead or something and is so relieved im alive.

  6. Dogs do feel shame and guilt. They know when they’ve done something wrong. They show it. They’re much more aware then we give them credit for.

    • they can also feel compassion and altruism. i know personally because when i was younger i was an inexperienced dog owner, and used to use corporal punishment. we got a new pup around 2 months old, and i was using old school house breaking (i am ashamed to admit) which included making the dog smell the soiled area, hitting him and saying “no” in a loud voice. one day i came home from work and there was poop on the floor from the new younger dog. i said an expletive and moved to go punish the dog who ran into the kennel, the older dog immediately went and stood in front of the kennel to block my way. he stood there looking at me, not aggressively challenging me, but definitely saying that he wasnt going to let me at the other dog. once i understood what was happening i backed down and gained a new respect for dogs.they are herd/pack animals, and i have no doubt that they have their own versions of emotions like guilt, pride, compassion, grief, love, loyalty, betrayal etc. because these are all the kinds of emotions that bond social animals together. i also have no doubt that if i let them these dogs will make me a better human being

  7. My daughter went to school, her boston rat terrier had a horrible night, crying and holding her “binky” (her toy pacifier) in her mouth. I keep holding her and trying to soothe her, I feel so bad for her. She will get extra attention today. I hate to see her sad.

  8. Please HELP..we have had a puppy for 3 months now..she is 5 months old..if we give her back to adoption center..will she know we are gone/ will she miss us and do dogs feel like they did something wrong if that happens?

  9. “However, they do not have the ability to feel the more complex social emotions that humans can, like guilt, shame, or a sense of pride.”

    I think this is false. My dad shaved the butt of our first dog to get something off one time, and because she was so embarrassed about it she dug a hole and put her rear end in it and stayed there literally for like a week. I’ve also see videos on Youtube where dogs show guilt after getting caught doing something they’re not supposed to do.

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