If you have recently adopted a rescue dog from a shelter, you may wonder if he remembers and misses his former owners. Shelter dogs often look very sad and lonely. So it is easy to imagine they may be grieving the loss of their former family. They may also be sad about living in a shelter. Most facilities do their best to care for their wards, but a shelter is certainly not an ideal home.
Since dogs end up in shelters for a multitude of reasons, all of them may not be thinking of and missing former owners. However, dogs who have lost their loving family due to death or other circumstances, do seem to remember their family and grieve. What is less clear is how long rescue dogs remember their former owners.
The good news is that dogs can actually adapt quite well. In fact, most rescue dogs begin to thrive when given a second. chance!
Do rescue dogs remember their past?
Dogs do not remember things exactly like humans. They do have both short and long-term memories. But according to an article written by Christine O’Brien, November 25th, 2020 for Hillspet.com, a dog’s short-term memory is only about 2 minutes, tops.
However, a dog does have long-term memories as well, but they are considered associative memories. Dogs have associations with people and situations through similar sounds, smells, or other triggers. They may not remember exact events or people. But dogs can have associations that may cause them to have a flashback of something happy or troubling.
In my recent post, “Do Rescue Dogs Remember their Stay at a Shelter?”, I cited some new studies that demonstrate dogs seem to have episodic memories. This is similar to humans as a type of recall memory. A certain sight or sound can actually cause them to briefly re-live a past event.
So, It does seem that dogs can probably remember their past owners.
Sadly, many years ago, I needed to re-home my two 7-year-old Beagles whom I had raised from pups. I discovered a year into graduate school that dogs were no longer allowed in campus housing. I had temporarily left them with a foster family for nine months. My intention was to take them back to grad school with me the following year.
When I went back home during summer break to visit, my two sweet Beagles did not seem to recognize me at first. But after I talked and played with them for a few minutes, they got very excited and responded to me as they had in the past.
They eventually went to live with my ex-husband and his new wife who adored them and showered them with love. They adapted well and had a wonderful life. I, on the other hand, still miss them terribly and continue to periodically grieve about giving them up.
Do Dogs Get Sad and Miss their Former Owners?
Even though dogs live very much in the moment, they do have a full range of emotions. And, yes, dogs can get very sad when they have to leave their human parent or their owner dies. Anecdotal evidence from shelter workers revealed that many dogs get depressed, sleep a lot, and may not eat after going into a shelter.
I wrote a post about the 8 Primary Emotions that Dogs Share with Humans which describes how dogs can definitely feel emotions such as sadness and joy. After adoption, a dog may seem depressed for a while or act out in odd ways such as peeing in the house or becoming hyperactive.
My dogs did a little of this. I think after several months in the shelter, coming back into a home may have reminded them of being with their former family. Eventually, however, they settled down. After 2 and 1/2 years, both dogs seem pretty well adjusted. I never learned the full story, but apparently, they were well cared for until their former owner had a change in her life situation and had to surrender them.
How Long Before a Dog Forgets his Owner?
Rescue dogs can actually transition to new owners fairly quickly in most situations. Most dogs are just grateful and happy to be in a positive environment that is safe and caring.
Clearly, nine months is a long time for dogs, since my Beagles had seemed to forget about me. But, honestly, I really think that dogs never completely forget about beloved past owners. I have read stories about dogs that were lost for years and then reunited with their family. They remembered them and were overwhelmed with joy.
But, since dogs’ memories work a little differently than ours, they may recall scents, sounds, or situations more than the actual people themselves. Yet with the research that is being done regarding episodic memory, dogs may actually remember the specifics about living with a past family. And, they may actually remember the members of their former family.
Even if a dog can remember his former family for a long time, that does not necessarily interfere with the bonding process with a new human parent. Dogs have big hearts and a lot of love to offer. And since they can live easily in the present moment, they can also bond with new people. If a rescued dog is happy in his new home, he may remember, but no longer miss his former owner.
How Long Does it Take for a Rescue Dog to Adjust?
Generally, dogs begin to adjust after three months. By that time they have become used to the new routines, rules, and family members in their new “pack”. However, for some dogs who have had abusive pasts, it may take longer.
Some dogs who come from places like puppy mills have never really known human kindness or really been part of a family. These dogs will have a lot more to learn and will have some past trauma to overcome. Outside professional support may be needed. But my hat is off to those kind souls who go the extra mile for these dogs who are so in need of a second chance at life.
Overall, the average time for a rescue dog to settle into his new life ranges from three months to about a year. Just don’t give up too soon! The shelter where you adopted your dog will probably be able to help and provide resources. Try to appreciate what it may be like to be in your new dog’s paws. This is a huge adjustment, but most dogs can eventually make the transition. Be sure to see my post How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog to learn more about raising a rescue dog.