Sorry moms and dads, but the hardest goodbye us pet owners must say before going back to college is the farewell to our dogs, hands down.
It’s nothing personal, but Sparky can’t pick up the phone to tell us he misses us whenever he pleases. In typical move-in day fashion, we drop our backpacks, squat down, grip his ears and give one last smooch between his eyes before heading out the door.
And we don’t dare turn around for one last look; that head-cocked face of confusion is too much to bear.
Even more to stomach after abandoning our furry companions for a few months’ time is that one big question we ask ourselves: do our dogs remember us when we come home from college?
Cue the sighs of relief.
According to “The Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz, humans have an episodic memory—meaning, we can recall past events and think of future events, while dogs do not.
But this does not mean dogs are stuck in the present—they just remember things differently than we do. Dogs also pick up on rituals to remember. Humans recall past events by associating them with other events that happened around the same time, while dogs use routine clues. For example, when they get hungry, they associate it with their owner arriving home from work.
Though many people think that dogs have a weak sense of sight, vision is actually one of the major ways that dogs can recognize people. A study published in “Animal Behaviour” proved that dogs are able to identify their owners by their vision.
The experiment had the dogs’ owners and strangers walk through a set of doors, and when the dogs had to choose to go to one of the doors, they almost always went to the door their owner walked through.
To prove the dogs were relying on their sight and not smells, the sequence was repeated, but the humans were given bags to put over their heads. With no faces to recognize, the dogs were less successful in finding their owner.
However, dogs do possess an incredible sense of smell that helps them to remember you. They remember humans by their natural scent, so don’t try out a new perfume come Thanksgiving break. Their sense of smell is their strongest sense.
Aaron Blaisdell, professor of neuroscience at UCLA, said dogs have over 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, while humans have only six million. Dogs also have an olfactory memory, meaning they can distinguish humans by their unique scent alone even years after being exposed to the original odor.
He notes that their sense of smell is linked to their emotion, similar to how humans feel happy when they smell their grandmother’s pie.
Not only do dogs remember us, but they also love us, even when we don’t have food to give. Gregory Berns, neuroeconomics professor at Emory University, conducted a study where he took MRIs of dogs’ brains.
From the study, Berns was able to conclude that not only can dogs recognize their owners, but they also love their owners for reasons beyond just food. The MRI showed activity in the dogs’ brains when interacting with their owners without food, in the same way that human brains react when they are with someone they love.
A long-distance relationship with your pooch may even make them love you more. According to professor of animal behavior Marlene Emara, dogs display a greater affection towards their owners if they’ve been separated for longer periods of time. The longer you are away from your dog, the more excited he or she will be when you see them again.
“Think of those video clips on YouTube that demonstrate the dogs’ reactions to their owners coming home from war,” Emara says. “If the interactions between a dog and its owner are strong, a dog can miss a person to the point where they can have separation anxiety and depression.”
On that note, perhaps getting a college degree online is our best bet.