Does My Dog Love Me?
When it comes to most dog owners, there is no doubt that they love their dog. Many of them display their love and affection for their dog proudly… by showcasing them on their walls, taking them everywhere with them, and talking about them constantly. Dog lovers are definitely a specific breed. But, for those that count ourselves among that elite group, one question tends to keep us up at night. Does my dog actually love me? We’d like to think that our dog loves us back with the same intensity but, since they can’t talk, it’s really just an educated guess.
But there is great news! Animal behaviors and canine scientists have been studying questions like these for years. This article will shed some light on a few facets of our furry friend’s emotional range, including if they really do love us like we hope they do.
Do Dogs Experience Emotions?
Before we can figure out if our dogs love us, we have to start with the basics. Do dogs actually experience emotions at all?
One of the main problems we run into when discussing dogs and emotions is something called anthropomorphism. Essentially, this is the human tendency to want to apply human rationale, emotions, and behavior to our pets. However tempting it is to do this, in the end, it really takes away from our dog’s actual animal instincts in an unfair way. When we understand and appreciate our dogs as dogs, we can develop a much deeper relationship with them than we do when we treat them as our “babies.”
But let's talk science…
An important step toward understanding if our dogs truly do feel emotions occurred with the discovery that the canine brain has all of the same structures in the brain that are key to producing emotions that humans do. That means, at least on a biological level, that their brains are capable of creating and experiencing emotions. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their emotional range and experience is the same as ours.
Most canine researchers compare the way that dogs experience emotions to that of a two year old child. Think of the way that a two year old responds to the world. They may not have the much wider range of emotions that we have as adults, but they are capable of some of the more basic. Now apply this to your dog. Starting to make a little more sense, right?
Does My Dog Love Me?
As we discussed, our dogs produce all of the hormones necessary to experience emotions. One of those hormones, and the one that is most critical to answering that question, is oxytocin.
Oxytocin is more commonly referred to as the “love” hormone. When activated, it causes those warm, fuzzy feelings… not only love but also general affection, bonding, and the urge to cuddle. Since dogs produce oxytocin, that on its own would be proof enough that dogs feel love. But that’s not the only research out there! Just because they can produce oxytocin doesn’t mean that they release it when they’re around us.
Luckily, there is more specific research, performed by neuroscientist Gregory Berns. Berns measured the reaction dogs have to smelling their owner’s scent by training them to stay still in an MRI machine. Once they were in the MRI, they were presented with various different odors to track how their brains responded. The result was the discovery that the “reward center” in their brain (known as the caudate nucleus) activated when they smelled their owner. While they may be difficult to read physically, thanks to these brave, canine doctors, we were able to gain a lot of information about how they feel emotionally.
When we combine their ability to chemically feel emotions with the way their brains react around our scent, we can definitely conclude that they “love” us on a scientific level. However, we can do our own research by paying close attention to how they act around us. Our dog’s behavior is perhaps an even more important piece of the puzzle, so let’s discuss a few ways that you can accurately interpret it.
How Can I Tell If My Dog Loves Me?
Like we said, since most of us don’t have an MRI machine laying around, we have to rely on our dog’s behavior to clue us in to how they feel about us. Here are just a few of the behaviors they are likely to perform if they feel affection toward you.
- Your dog likes to bring you presents - While most dogs will bring a ball or a rope so that you can play with them, dogs that love you will bring you their prized possession “just because.” It’s this selfless desire to share that is a great indication that they feel lots of affection toward you.
- Your dog acts happy to see you - Whether that is excitedly running up to you at the door when you arrive home from work or wagging their tail every time you enter the room, dogs who love you won’t be able to hide it when they see you.
- Your dog sleeps with you - In the wild, our dog’s ancestors were gladiators. They had to be constantly on alert for threats to stay alive. This meant that they needed to sleep in a position that allowed them the best access to always see and smell what was happening around them. Because a large part of love is trust, a dog who loves you will sleep with you. That shows that they feel safe around you, and consider you part of their pack.
- Your dog follows you around - While this can definitely get annoying over time, dogs that follow you around are showing you how they feel about you. They feel safe and comfortable around us, so they seek out that feeling of affection. They are also likely to do that patented dog “lean,” showing you that they love you and want to be around you.
- Your dog makes direct eye contact with you - Some people have the wrong impression about canine eye contact, assuming that it is done with the intention of showing you that they think they’re in charge. In fact, eye contact from your dog (especially when done with those soft, “puppy dog” eyes) is a sign that they love you and are looking to you for reassurance and guidance.
If your dog is giving you any of those signs, and especially if they are showing you more than one or two, it’s their way of showing you how much they care about you. Without words, this is the only way they can say “I love you.” Show them you love them back by responding to these behaviors with positive words and gentle, physical affection like head scratches or pats.
The human-dog bond is one of the closest bonds that either will experience. It is so important to us that it has been the subject of plenty of research, and has even made its way into pop culture mainstays like Time Magazine. Although humans and dogs are very different creatures, we’ve been living side by side for more than 14,000 years. Luckily, our bond is still going strong and has even been “proven” by modern science. So, the next time you look at your dog and wonder if he or she loves you, you can confidently know that the answer is “yes.” Now go give your dog a kiss from us.