Do Dogs Know If They Have The Same Parents?

Dogs have complex social relationships and bonds, especially within their family units. Puppies recognize their mothers and littermates from a very young age, but do they maintain the ability to recognize relatives later in life? Research indicates that while adult dogs likely do not consciously know who their parents or siblings are, they may be able to identify relatives through scent.

This article explores what we know about dog senses, memory, and social relationships to examine if dogs retain the ability to recognize their parents and siblings as adults. We’ll look at studies on sibling recognition, parental bonds, and adoption to try to answer the question. The evidence suggests that while puppies can identify their close family, this recognition likely fades as they mature. However, a dog’s powerful sense of smell means scent provides major cues that may allow them to recognize relatives after separation.

Dog Senses

Dogs have an incredibly powerful sense of smell that allows them to gather a tremendous amount of information about their surroundings. Their sense of smell is estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than humans ( Dogs’ powerful noses contain up to 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to only about 6 million in humans ( Their strong sense of smell allows dogs to detect scents from great distances, even faint or extremely diluted odors. Dogs use their sense of smell not just for hunting or tracking, but also for gathering information from urine, feces, and scent markings to learn about other dogs and animals in their environment.

Dog Memory

Dogs have an excellent sense of smell that allows them to remember other dogs even after long periods of time. According to research published in Odour-Evoked Memory in Dogs: Do Odours Help to Remember (Quaranta et al. 2020), dogs were able to recognize and recall their siblings after being separated for two years solely based on smell. The powerful canine sense of smell seems to evoke memories and allow dogs to remember familiar dogs, even if they have not seen them for a while.

Another article from the RSPCA Queensland confirms dogs can remember each other through scent for extended periods, even if they have not interacted in person: “Does Your Dog Remember You.” The key to dogs remembering each other lies in their incredible capacity for olfactory memory and their ability to recall scents long after exposure.

Dog Social Behavior

Dogs are highly social animals that naturally live together in packs. This pack mentality and social structure remain strong in domesticated dogs as well. Studies show that dogs interact, play, and cooperate with each other just like wolves in the wild. They establish social hierarchies and relationships through actions like muzzle licking, tail wagging, body postures, and more.

Dogs specifically recognize and forge bonds with other individual dogs that they are familiar with. Scientists have found that dogs use visual and olfactory cues to identify other dogs, similar to how humans recognize faces. Dogs also appear to remember other dogs they have met before and will show more interest or affection towards familiar dogs compared to unknown dogs.

Additionally, when dogs live together in the same household, they quickly establish “friendships” with each other. They play together, groom each other, sleep near each other, and exhibit protective behaviors. Some studies have even found that dogs within the same household will respond to each other’s distress signals and support each other emotionally.

Dog Familiarity

Studies have shown that dogs interact differently with dogs that are familiar to them compared to unfamiliar dogs. Research by Kerepesi et al. (2015, found that dogs were able to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar people. Dogs spent more time looking at, sniffing, and standing close to familiar people compared to strangers. This indicates that dogs have some capacity to recognize individuals they have interacted with before.

Another study by Nagasawa et al. (2020, tested how a dog’s familiarity with humans affected their tendency to follow human pointing gestures. They found that dogs followed pointing gestures more often when the gesturer was familiar compared to when they were unfamiliar. This suggests dogs are more attentive to and willing to obey familiar humans’ communicative gestures.

Overall, research shows dogs clearly interact differently with and respond better to familiar humans and dogs than unfamiliar ones. Familiarity built from previous positive interactions leads dogs to be more attentive, interactive and obedient with those individuals.

Sibling Recognition

There is some evidence that dogs can recognize and treat their siblings differently than other dogs. One study published in Animal Cognition in 2009 found that dogs were able to recognize their siblings through scent even after two years of separation from their litter (source). Dogs who still lived with siblings showed more interest in the scents of their siblings compared to unrelated dogs. However, dogs who had been separated from their siblings at an early age did not show preference for their siblings’ scents.

Another study from 2014 published in Animal Behavior found that adult shelter dogs responded differently to urine samples from their siblings compared to urine from unfamiliar dogs, suggesting some ability to recognize kin (source). However, the recognition was not as strong if the siblings had been separated at an early age.

Overall, research indicates dogs can recognize siblings to some degree, especially if they lived together beyond the normal separation time from their litter. But dogs separated early in life may not retain strong memories of their siblings.

Parental Bonds

There is a strong parental bond that forms between a mother dog (dam) and her puppies. This bond begins to develop during pregnancy as the dam starts nesting behavior to prepare for the arrival of puppies. According to The Nest, the bond strengthens after birth as the mother cleans, nurses, and cares for the puppies. Nursing is an important bonding time as the dam provides nutrition and comfort to her litter.

According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, some nursing is nutritious while other nursing is for comfort. The dam’s milk production and nursing stimulates growth hormones in the puppies. The close physical contact during nursing also allows bonding through touch, sound, and scent. This helps the puppies form an attachment to their mother. The parental bond remains strong for at least the first few weeks of the puppies’ lives.

Adoption Studies

Research has shown that dogs who are separated from their littermates and adopted into different homes still retain a sense of familiarity with their biological siblings. In one study published in Royal Society Open Science, littermates who were separated at 10 weeks old were reunited as adults. When interacting with their siblings compared to unrelated dogs, they displayed more interest in smelling their sibling’s urine and spent more time in close proximity.1 This suggests dogs have an innate ability to recognize and be drawn to their biological relatives, even after being apart for years.

Another study from Biology Letters looked at the behavior of shelter dogs when reunited with a parent or sibling after at least a 1 year separation. When interacting with their family member, the dogs showed more frequent gentle behaviors like licking and sniffing compared to an unrelated dog. The researchers concluded dogs form enduring social memories about close relatives that can persist over long separations.2

Overall, these studies demonstrate dogs have an innate sense of familiarity and connection with siblings and parents even after adoption. This suggests they retain social memories that allow recognition of biological relatives.

Instinct vs Learning

It is generally accepted by dog experts that most dog behaviors involve a combination of instinct and learned behaviors. Dogs do have strong natural instincts that have evolved over thousands of years, but they also have an amazing capacity to learn behaviors through experience and training (Mutt-i-grees, 2022).

Some key dog instincts include searching for food, having a pack mentality, digging, chewing, hunting prey, playing, greeting humans, and defending territory or resources. However, the extent to which these instincts are expressed depends a lot on the individual dog’s genetics, environment, socialization, and training (Nutrisource Pet Foods, 2022).

For example, while dogs have a natural instinct to hunt prey, a dog that grows up in a home without access to small animals may never fully develop this instinct. And dogs can certainly learn not to chase cats or other pets if properly trained. So predatory behavior involves both instinct and learned inhibition (Prezi, n.d.).

When it comes to dog social behavior and family bonds, studies of feral dogs show they naturally form social groups and have dominance hierarchies. But domestic dogs also form very strong social bonds with human families that go beyond pure instinct (Mutt-i-grees, 2022).

So while dog instincts provide a foundation, the extent to which different dog behaviors are expressed involves a complex interplay between genes, environment, socialization, training, and learning.


In summary, dogs have strong family bonds and many ways to recognize their parents, siblings, and other relatives. Their advanced sense of smell allows dogs to distinguish between family members right from birth. Dogs also exhibit learned behaviors that indicate familiarity with their siblings and parents. While their memory fades over time, especially in early puppyhood, studies show dogs can remember and recognize their parents and siblings well into adulthood. Adoption studies reinforce that family bonds extend beyond the puppy stage. Overall, the evidence clearly shows that dogs have the ability to identify their parents and siblings in a variety of ways, provided they have sufficient exposure during the critical socialization period. Though the exact extent of their understanding is still debated, it’s clear dogs share strong familial connections.

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