Do our dogs love us?
“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” W. Edwards Deming
In a recent episode of For Your Consideration, we examined the sophisticated system of canine smell. Canine cognitive research conducted at Cornell University demonstrated that, in addition to the astonishing acuity of a dog’s olfactory system, their sense of smell has recently been discovered to have a direct connection to the visual cortex in the brain.
How the dog experiences smell utilizing the visual portion of the brain awaits further research. It may be a sense experience that humans can never fully appreciate, like the echolocation of bats and porpoises.
We will now enter an even more challenging aspect of research, canine emotions, specifically the ability to love. Anyone who has paid close attention to their dog knows they have many of the same emotions as humans.
Dogs exhibit signs of depression, joy, excitement, jealousy, anger, frustration, boredom and stress, just like humans do, so why not the emotion of love?
But first, we must look at love in the sense that humans feel deep affection. Human love is well-studied and has results that are less than romantic.
Love is all about our brain and, more specifically, the chemistry of our brain.
When humans are in love, presumably with another human, the release of hormones facilitates the first blush of falling in love, sometimes referred to as “chemicals of love.”
Lust is driven by testosterone and estrogen, while attraction arises from releasing dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. At some point in the love process, we feel attachment mediated by vasopressin and oxytocin. *
And those butterflies we feel in our tummies when we see our beloved? Phenylethylamine causes those flutters and, in my case, a loss of rational thinking.
Like it or not, romantic or not, that’s love from a purely scientific viewpoint.
However, you’ll only convince some that love is merely a chemical reaction. We place this emotion way above and beyond a simple explanation. Humans almost universally regard love as something ethereal, something almost Godly.
The above doesn’t answer the question of whether our dogs love us, though. We know that we love them, but do they return the sentiment?
Over the last several months, I have asked many of my dog caretaker friends if they think their dogs love them.
Only one response was vaguely like the chemical explanation; everyone else felt that their dogs love them because they show it through body language, desire to be near us, and that love resides in their eyes.
And indeed, unlike most other animals, dogs will look deeply into our eyes. At times that visual embrace can only be described as adoring.
Now, that should ruffle the feathers of the reductionists out there and those fearful of venturing into the valley of anthropomorphism.
Why just dogs; what about cats?
You may wonder why I have not included our feline friends in this article. The answer to whether or not our dogs love us is well-studied of late, so there is data to back up my assertions.
The research methods used to confirm canine amore is partly based on training dogs to be completely still while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI.
Imagine training a cat to do that. It sounds a lot like the proverbial “Harder than herding cats” – in other words, a logistical nightmare.
So, please forgive me for not including cats in this article. Although you already know in your heart, they love you as you love them. And you don’t require a scientific study to prove it; you know it in your heart and through observation.
But, if you can get your cat to lie still for extended periods in an MRI, good on you; get that cat up to Cornell and get a feline cognitive study underway.
However, “As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat.” **
Are we fooling ourselves? Where’s the data?
If you love dogs and science, you may have noticed the proliferation of canine studies in the last few decades. Of course, we don’t need science to tell us our dogs love us. We have always believed our dogs love us, and now science is coming to the same conclusion.
There are some provisos before venturing further into studies that try hard to avoid the taboo of anthropomorphism.
Dog lovers and canine researchers can both agree on many facts about dogs.
Dogs are domesticated animals and have spent tens of thousands of years around humans. They have gone from the margins of ancient campfires snatching scraps of discarded food, the friendlier wolves inching closer to their human benefactors.
Through millennia dogs evolved and specialized into working animals. The journey of the canine has progressed from long nights in the cold to sleeping on our beds.
Although primates are our closest ancestors, dogs evolved to pay detailed attention to humans. Chimps and Bonobos have little interest in us.
Merely paying attention does not do justice to the intensity of their observations; they study us. If there was a degree in humanology, your dog has a Ph.D.
Dogs know much more about us than we do about ourselves. They anticipate our every move.
I only have to think about bathing my dogs, and they hide under the bed. Of course, I realize that body language, timing, and signs of preparing for a bath may be what gives my intentions away.
Thank God, we are realizing through modern research techniques that dogs are affectionate and have a loving nature. They are not, as once thought, mere automatons.
The 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes would infamously nail puppies to his classroom wall, demonstrating to his students that they feel no pain and are not sentient.
He once kicked a pregnant dog in the stomach, saying, “Their whimpers are only like rattling gears.” I would have been delighted to kick Mr. Descartes’s derriere with a spiked boot.
Because of these antiquated ideas about dogs, we haven’t always given these loving creatures the respect they deserve. One only has to drive around on a hot or freezing day, and you will see dogs chained up with no water, food or shelter.
These sentient beings feel pain and loneliness and depend on us like our human children. They made an agreement with humans over long periods. They would give humanity security and many other services for very little in return.
Dogs are considered the most successful animal on this planet by forming a bond with another species, sapiens. But it took millennia to realize our responsibility to them, but why?
“The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven and not man’s” a quote by Mark Twain and heartily endorsed by this author.
In recent decades, many notions about dogs and why they prefer our company have arisen. Some of these ideas reflect an arrogance unique to humans.
First, there was the wolf pack theory. The dog caretaker in this scenario must act as the alpha wolf, subduing all of the pack’s other members. Some dog trainers even suggested that we get down on the ground and force our canine buddies into submission by mimicking a bite with our hands.
These “get ‘em down and hold ‘em down” types attempted to impose these ideas on those who knew such antics were unnecessary to train a dog properly. Most dog caretakers recognize that dogs do much better with compassionate, patient and gentle leadership from us.
Then, there’s the Master Manipulator Theory. This notion makes the dog out to be a manipulator of humans to get what they want.
As stated earlier, canines have had many years to figure out humans, but earlier canine cognition studies were based solely on human models of behavior and psychology.
Could it be that we, humans, are the ones who are the master manipulator? We lured the modern dog from their wolf pack to us to do our bidding. We unwittingly bred dogs to be more friendly over time and to perform certain services.
When the breeding of dogs became intentional, the result was 339 breeds ranging in size and shape from the Chihuahua to the Alaskan Malamute and all forms of diversity in between.
The one thing dogs thankfully did not pick up from man is evilness. Even though Stephen King wrote at least one book about a wicked dog, evil is solely the province of man. We can all agree on that!
From wolf to dog, the dramatic changes include sociability and companionability, curlier tails, floppy ears, a rounder body, and those big imploring eyes. Can a dog help it if they are adorable to us?
In next week’s For Your Consideration, we’ll delve deeper into how we know that our dogs love us, chemically or otherwise.
This episode is dedicated to Sherry Waters for her success and passion for rehabilitating severely abused dogs.
* Harvard University, Love Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship. By Katherine Wu, 2017
** Quote by Ellen Perry