Pet Q&A: Do dogs recognize their own siblings?

NewsdaySeptember 6, 2013 

Q: Do adult dogs recognize their siblings or, for that matter, their mothers after being separated for some time?

A: That is a question I have long wondered about. To the best of my knowledge, there are no scientific studies done on whether an animal can recognize a blood relative or shared DNA. All information is only anecdotal.

Everyone has stories about this. I once had a wolf that only liked me and was afraid of all other men. But when she saw my father for the first time, she responded to him as if he were me. Was it his mannerisms that matched mine or did she really know that we shared DNA? I have watched many animal siblings reunite after a period of time and they don't seem to regard each other any differently than if they met another animal from down the block. Sometimes they get along, and sometimes they do not.

Animals are very good at remembering individuals, so if two puppies became good friends when they were together in a litter, they would most likely always remember each other as good friends. Their ability to recognize each other as blood relatives remains to be proven, however.

Q: My Labrador is really the smartest dog I have ever had. I swear she can look at a problem and figure it out. My husband is a biology teacher and says she is not actually thinking at all and what she does is only to please us or to please herself. However, when I see her studying a situation it really seems as if she is thinking about it, and I wondered what you thought.

A: As a rule, animals react to situations rather than think about them cognitively, but I have seen so many incidents where animals clearly thought that I would have to agree with you. I am sure they do not think as we do, but there is clearly something going on in their heads.

Here's the best example I can give. Many years ago, I was breeding a type of fish called a betta. The male builds a nest of bubbles and cares for the eggs and babies. If one should fall out of the floating nest he carefully picks it up in his mouth and places it back in. Well one fish I had was tending his babies and I dropped a few frozen bloodworms in the bowl for him to eat. Just as he turned to follow one of the worms, a baby fell out of the nest and he picked it up in his mouth and then turned to eat the bloodworm. I figured the baby in his mouth would get swallowed with the worm. However he stopped dead in his tracks for at least a half a minute just staring at the worm. He spat out the baby, ate the worm and then picked up the baby and returned it to the nest. If that is not thinking, then I do not know what else is — and this was from an inch-long fish.

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