When it comes to our beloved dogs most people say that their four legged friends love them. But is it true? Can dogs feel love in the same or similar ways in which we do? The good news for us is that there are researchers who investigate the canine-human relationship and have provided some answers to the all important question of whether or not our dogs reciprocate our unconditional love.
Humans and dogs have a long and shared history together. Most scientists agree that domesticated dogs and humans have been living alongside each other for at least 10,000 years. In fact, research from a 2013 study shows that both humans and dogs have been genetically adapting to one another since humans first began domesticating dogs over 10,000 years ago. Based on this and other studies there is now a surprising amount of evidence that our dogs do in fact love us.
One of the first pieces of evidence comes from neuroscientist Gregory Berns. In a small 2014 study he and a team of experts scanned dogs’ brains and found that the brains of dogs light up differently when they smell their owners compared to other dogs or people. In order to conduct this study Berns and his team trained a small handful of dogs to sit still in an MRI machine in order to monitor the part of dogs’ brains that coordinates their neural reward system. However, it wasn’t 100% clear whether the dog truly loves their owner, or if it simply associates its owner with food and rewards. In either case there is something to be said with this kind of scientific research of the connection between the dog’s brain and his olfactory senses since dogs navigate the world through their sense of smell.
Another piece of evidence is often referred to as the “oxytocin-gaze positive loop.” Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain and often referred to as the love hormone. We experience the oxytocin-gaze positive loop when we hug loved ones or gaze into their eyes. This hormone has been important in facilitating bonds and relationships between humans. And based on a 2015 study in Japan it looks like our pups may have adopted this important bonding pathway. In this study scientists found that humans and dogs were in fact engaging in cross-species gaze-meditation and bonding. When engaging in this way with their dogs it was found that humans and dogs use the same oxytocin system as when we hug or gaze into the eyes of our loved ones. To test this result the same researchers also tested this system on wolves and they found that wolves rarely look humans in the eye and don’t appear to release oxytocin meaning this is a behavior unique to domesticated dogs.
The final piece of evidence is based on your dog’s behavior. In fact, dog owners regularly state that their dogs show them affection through various behaviors such as eye contact, licks, and tail wagging. Additionally, dogs are one of only a few animals other than humans that run to their humans when scared or startled. Think about all the other domesticated animals out there and what they do when they get scared or startled. Do horses or cows run to their humans when they get spooked? Does your cat run to you when startled by fireworks? In fact, most other domesticated animals choose to run and hide even from us humans when they get scared which is quite different from what most dogs choose to do. In addition to the behavioral cues, a study from 2016 found that dogs can in certain instances recognize human emotions based on our faces when combined with the tone of our voice. In this study researchers placed photos of happy, sad, and angry faces of humans in front of the test dogs and then played happy, sad, and angry human voices in unfamiliar languages. In most cases the dogs looked at the face that matched the tone of the human voice.
But is any of this enough proof to definitively state that our dogs love us? Some researchers say that this is in fact enough proof, but others would state that we won’t know for sure unless dogs can report feeling love because dogs may not have the same understanding of love the way that us humans do. But in the end what really matters is not whether science can prove that our dogs love us, but whether we believe that they do.