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How does a dog recognise its owner?

Bichon frise in owner's arms

You know your dog recognises you - but how do they do it?

© Shutterstock

We know our dogs recognise us. What else could explain those furious tail wags and slobbery kisses? Now, a new study has found the data to prove us right!

By Natasha James

Published on the 07/02/2021, 17:00

Does your dog follow you around the house? Do they look pained if you leave them outside a shop and delighted when you return again? Do you get furious tail wags and never ending kisses when you come home from a day at work?

Of course, we, dog owners are in no doubt that our dogs recognise us but now a series of new studies have collected the data to prove it!

How does my dog know I'm his owner?

A 2014 study carried out by neouroscientist Gregory Berns, scanned the brains of dogs and found that their brains light up differently when they smell their owner to when they smell other humans.

This might not be much of a surprise, dogs are well known for their incredible sense of smell, after all. But, it seems that that’s not the only way that our pup knows who we are, there are plenty of other factors at work too. 

Yes, our dog knows our scent but they also recognise our faces, our voices and our body language.

Do dogs recognise their owner by looks or through smell?

A dogs’ sense of smell is likely to be a massive 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. It’s hard to comprehend but us humans have around 5 million smell receptors and our canine friends have around 220 million – woah!

Dogs’ noses are so sensitive that they can identify one member of a household from another and they can spot the differences between identical twins (maybe even better than we can), they do this investigative work by sensing the odour-causing secretions on our bodies. It doesn’t sound great but rest assured, your pup loves how you smell!

Dogs also possess a pheromone in the nasal passage that gives them information about the sex and the species, so your dog knows that the squirrel they chased in the park earlier today was a girl!

Their sense of smell is so sensitive that not only can they smell us when we sit next to them, but they can also smell us on that jumper that we left on the bed this morning and they even know where we sat and how long we’ve been out of the house for.

With all that info, we feel pretty secure in stating that yes our dogs will absolutely recognise us by our scent but a team of researchers at the Paolo Mongillo University of Padua in Italy have scientific evidence that they know us by sight too (more on this shortly…).

The role of sight in dog-owner recognition

The evolution from wild dogs to the pets we know and love today is a fascinating one. It seems that dogs learnt to read human expressions and behaviour because the happier our cavemen ancestors were, the more likely they were to give them scraps of food and provide a warm and comfy place to sleep. If your survival is dependent on another species, you learn to read that species incredibly well!

So yes, our dogs can smell us, but they can absolutely recognise us by sight too.

The science behind dogs recognising their owners

Back to that study… researchers at the Paolo Mongillo University of Padua in Italy carried out a study to see if dogs knew their owners’ faces. It went something like this:

Dogs were placed in a room with their owner and one stranger. The owners and the stranger moved around the room before leaving by two separate doors. The results were obvious and instantaneous, the dog sat next to the door that the owner had left through and waited.

Then, the owner and the stranger both entered through the same door wearing hoods over their faces. This confused the dogs, indicating that they rely a lot more heavily on sight than we initially thought.

A further test was carried out by researchers at the University of Mexico which showed a series of photos to various dogs inside an MRI scanner. The pup’s brains lit up when they saw people and particularly their owners.

Signs a dog recognises their owner

You probably already feel pretty confident that your pup recognises you but here are some of the tell-tale signs to look out for:

  • Tail wagging
  • Barking
  • Sniffing
  • Jumping up
  • Licking
  • Play bowing
  • Dropped ears
  • Excitable behaviour
"Hello hooman" ©Shutterstock

Can Fido recognise family members?

So, we know our pup can recognise us and know that this adorable trait is actually a biological evolution to ensure species survival but do they also recognise their furry canines – who they don’t rely on for food, shelter and walkies?

Another simple test was carried out by researchers who placed a puppy in a room with her mother and another dog – the pups overwhelmingly approached and interacted more with their biological mother than the stranger dog.

How to react when your pet recognises you

As any dog owner will attest, there are few things better, after a long day at work than getting home to a dog who is thoroughly delighted to see us. So, how should you react? By repaying the favour of course. Return those kisses, rub those ears and let Fido know that all that love is very much reciprocated!

Frequently asked questions

Which breed of dog has the best sense of smell?

Do dogs see colours?

Does my dog like me?