Do our dogs love us?
“Patricius, never again can thou give me a thousand kisses. Never canst thou be contentedly in my lap. In sadness have I buried thee, thou deservist.” ~ Ancient Roman epitaph for a beloved dog.
The evolutionary journey from wolf to domesticated dog was long and entailed many physical and physiological changes. By the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago, dogs were in the company of humans. It would be some time before humans intentionally set out to domesticate another animal to serve them.
The next animals domesticated were goats and sheep, about 10,000 years ago. This period also marked the dawn of agriculture. Of the thousands of creatures domesticated by man since then, only 14 are mammals.
Many more animals and plants were destined for domestication, freeing up sapiens from a foraging life- style. Dogs would represent a valuable asset in the activities of farming.
Tame or domesticated; what’s the difference?
Let’s touch on the difference between tame and domesticated, as those terms are sometimes assumed to be the same thing – they are not.
When that big Harley passed you on your vacation last year, your whole family was amazed to see a raccoon riding on the shoulders of the operator. “Oh, how cute,” everyone exclaimed simultaneously.
That raccoon was likely adopted as a youngster. Somebody tamed this animal to be comfortable riding on the bike, but it is still not a domesticated raccoon.
Domestication is something entirely different. According to Quizlet.com, domestication is a permanent genetic alteration of an animal species that leads to an inherent set of behavioral or physical traits helpful to humans.
The hog-riding raccoon was obtained early enough that a certain degree of taming is possible, yet it remains wild.
Enough already. You want to know what evidence supports the belief that our dogs love us; and unconditionally.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Tina Turner, a music legend, R.I.P.
In 1914, workers in Bonn, Germany, found a 14,000 year old grave containing the remains of a man and woman. Proof of affection for dogs by Paleolithic people was found in the tomb – the woman’s hand was resting on a canine skeleton.
One of the obstacles in proving any form of animal emotion is that we rarely consider animal intelligence on its own terms.
Therefore, earlier research was conducted with a pre-existing confirmation bias. Wild animals couldn’t possibly share some of the same emotions with the exalted human being, regardless of the degree of domestication, or so we thought.
For some humans, saying that animals feel what humans feel is a form of blasphemy.
After all, we sapiens continue to exert dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. And if we assumed that obligation, it appears we did a piss-poor job of it.
Even science once approached canine cognitive research with extreme anthropocentric bias.
Two major modern studies have shattered the notion that dogs do not reciprocate the love we give them. The results demonstrate that the physiology of love for dogs and humans is indistinguishable.
Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, had lost many dogs, and he knew the grief that came with each loss. The adage, “When you buy a dog, you’re buying a heartache,” holds true for most of us who adore our canine family members; they will likely die before us.
But we accept this eventuality because there really is no relationship quite like that between two of the oldest friends on Earth – human and dog. Phrases like “unconditional love” and “perfect companionability” come to mind.
Dr. Berns was interested in using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, M.R.I., to study the canine brain to determine if dogs experience love as humans do. His most significant concern, at this point, was how to get dogs to hold perfectly still during the entirety of the scan.
Dr. Berns built a mock M.R.I. in his basement to overcome this challenge. He got his terrier to comply with stillness after a three-month training period. The doctor now knew doing a successful fM.R.I. scan on a dog was possible and recruited 90 other dogs for his study.
Bern’s study was designed to determine dog preferences based on brain activity observed using an fMRI. Specifically, Dr. Bern wanted to know if dogs preferred praise from their caretakers over food.
By tracking the canine brain’s reward centers, Dr. Bern found that most dogs “Respond equally to food and praise.”
About 20% of this group of dogs responded more strongly to praise than food. Bern concluded, “The vast majority of dogs love us at least as much as food.”
A 2015 study conducted in Japan further demonstrated the strong attachment of dogs to their caretakers, an attachment similar to that between a human mother and her newborn.
How would they know this?
Good question: This experiment involved testing the subject’s urine, both human and dog. Researchers collected urine before mother and baby gazed into each other’s eyes, as well as that between dog and caretaker.
It is the eye contact that causes the brain to release oxytocin, such as that between an infant and mother. Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is pivotal in maternal bonding, altruism and trust. Its traces can be detected in urine.
(The word owner carries a negative connotation for some, so caretaker is generally preferred in describing the relationship between human and dog. Owner is a word that should be reserved for one’s material property only.
An interesting side note on this study was that in addition to dogs, babies and mothers, the study also used some tame wolves. The oxytocin response was far greater in dogs than in wolves because wild animals do not generally make deep eye contact.
This discovery would explain the oxytocin response when a loved one comes into view, be it a dog or a human. The embrace of eyes further stimulates love. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as a positive feedback loop between mother and baby and dog and human.
Dogs, like humans, are great at making deep connections through eye contact.
Speaking of dogs!
Alexis Devine, of Tacoma, Washington, decided to try a canine study on her Sheepadoodle, Bunny.
Alexis admits she is not a trained researcher, just a curious woman with a dog. But her D.I.Y. research project caught the attention of real canine researchers when she began posting Bunny’s extraordinary communicative abilities online.
Alexis wondered if there was a way that Bunny could let her know when she wanted to go out.
Dog Talk Buttons, designed initially as an alternative communication method for non-verbal people, were first selected to teach Bunny how to let Alexis know when she wanted to go out.
Each button has a word printed on it, such as Want, Out, Eat, Go, Walk, etc. When the button is depressed by the dog’s paw or nose, a pre-recorded voice says the word for the benefit of the dog’s caretaker.
And it grew from there, with many surprises along the way.
Author’s Note: Not all dogs are interested in using the buttons. The same goes for cats; some of our feline friends successfully use dog talk buttons.
For Bunny, a demonstrably intelligent dog, her learning curve wasn’t that steep. She was soon increasing her vocabulary and using multiple words for short sentences.
According to a recent article, she is up to 92 words that she uses regularly.
Combining single words, Bunny can tell Alexis a wide range of desires and emotions. Examples: “Bunny-Friend,” “Now-Happy,” Mom-Love-You.”
One day Alexis saw Bunny looking into a mirror.
Now, we all know it is conventional wisdom that dogs don’t recognize themselves in a mirror; and that is true. But Bunny’s response was totally unexpected when she said, “Who-This?”
On another occasion, Bunny pressed the buttons “Help-Ouch.” Alexis asked her in spoken English, “Where, ouch?’
Bunny replied, “Paw.”
And, indeed, when Alexis examined Bunny’s paws, there was a foxtail burr lodged between her toes.
I’m not sure if Bunny said “Thank You,” but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
So, readers, if you are still reluctant to accept that dogs