Does My Dog Love Me?
As dog owners, we readily acknowledge that we love our dogs. Why else would we get out of a warm bed and take them outside to potty when it’s freezing outside? Why would we leave a great restaurant before dessert and head home to feed them? Why would we immediately forgive them after they chew our favorite slippers? To say that dogs are “man’s best friend” is an understatement for many of us. Yet, the lingering question remains….Do our dogs love us back?
What does the research say?
An innovative team of scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia took a clinical approach in investigating the emotional state of dogs. These patient, apparently dog-loving researchers, trained dogs to be comfortable around that ominous piece of medical equipment that frightens even the bravest of people—the MRI scanner. The scientists got dogs to relax and lie still in the MRI machine and scanned their brains while exposing them to certain odors. Changes in brain function provided data on the emotional state of the dogs.
Why odors? Dogs navigate the world via their sense of smell. In fact, dogs, unlike humans, depend on their sense of smell more than sight to interpret their surroundings. The way dogs process and respond to smells reflects their feelings so the experiment used odors to stimulate the canine brain. Using the MRI, the scientists measured the neural responses of dogs as they were exposed to odors of both familiar and unfamiliar people and dogs.
The experiment revealed that when a dog smelled the familiar aroma of his owner, the “reward center” of the brain (caudate nucleus) was activated. The caudate nucleus contains many dopamine receptors and in human brains, like canine brains, it lights up when exposed to pleasurable experiences. For example, the smell of your favorite meal simmering on the stove might light up your brain. Of all the smells presented to the dogs, they responded more favorably to human odors than to the scent of canine companions. Moreover, a dog’s caudate nucleus was activated most significantly when the dog actually smelled someone they knew. A similar response occurs in humans when they are shown photos of people they love.
"A dog’s caudate nucleus was activated
most significantly when the dog actually
smelled someone they knew."
In related research performed in Budapest, scientists studied canine brain activity when exposed to sound to learn what happens inside the dog’s brain when we speak to them. When exposed to happy sounds, the canine brain responded much the same way the human brain does by lighting up the auditory cortex. This illustrates the effective communication that occurs between dog and human validating the human-animal bond.
Through science, we learned that our canine friends are social, emotional beings that respond to human smells and voices. They react with joy to our scent and respond to the tone of our voice. Science proves that part of the canine brain is associated with positive emotions just as ours is and they do, indeed, feel love for us.
How can you tell if your dog loves you?
Since we don’t have MRI machines in our homes and couldn’t interpret results even if we did, how can we be assured that our dogs love us? How can we be secure in the fact that they don’t just tolerate us because we provide them with food, exercise, and shelter.
Here are some indicators that your dog really does love you for more than a fresh bag of kibble and a walk in the park.
- Your dog is happy to see you. Your dog may jump and bark and get over-emotional when you walk through the door. Or perhaps, she is more subtle and simply wags her tail to the right at the sound of your greeting.
- Your dog gives you presents. Sometimes your dog brings you his favorite toy ready to play, but often, she presents it as a gift. She wants to “share” her favored possession with the person she loves.
- Your dog puts you second only to food. Next to food, your dog craves you! Dogs live in the “now.” When they are hungry and are presented full food bowl, they will forgo human interaction for the glory of a good meal; however, when the bowl is empty our dogs want us! Many dogs want to snuggle their owners after mealtime. Is it so bad playing second string to food?
- Your dog likes to sleep with you. Dogs are inherently alert to threats in their environment and lay in a defensive position when sleeping in the wild. They place their noses to the wind to pick up threatening scents and their backs to other pack members to form a protective circle. The fact that they are willing to snuggle with us on the couch is a sign that they feel safe with us and consider us part of their pack. We are part of their inner family circle.
- Your dog looks at you with loving eyes. Making direct eye contact can be interpreted as an aggressive action in the canine community. When two dogs meet, one will look away in deference to the alpha dog. When your dog looks at you with eyes that are relaxed and pupils that are normal size, he is gracing you with a loving gaze.
- Your dog doesn’t care about your appearance. If your dog cuddles you when you have stinky morning breath, after a sweaty work out, or when you have a crazy hair day, chances are it’s a case of true love. Dogs really do love us unconditionally.
- Your dog follows you everywhere. If you feel like you can’t take a step in the house without your dog at your heels, consider yourself loved. Dogs cling to us for more than just security. Unlike other human companions, they can’t get enough of our company.
Feel better? Your dog loves you! Now remain secure in the affection your dog feels for you, enjoy the loving relationship.
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