Does my Dog Really Love Me?

Do dogs feel love for the people who feed and care for them, or do they just engage in behavior that gets them fed and cared for?

Buddy’s owner arrives home from work and Buddy races to greet him. Is Buddy glad to see his master because he loves him or because his master dispenses the dog food? Missy wriggles and thumps her tail when she sees her mistress getting the leash. Is Missy happy to be with her mistress or would she be just as happy going for a walk with anybody who would take her?

Do dogs really love people or do they just feel pleasure when their needs are met? This is a difficult question. To attempt an answer, one must delve into areas as diverse as veterinary science, neurochemistry, evolutionary anthropology and primatology.

Dogs Just Put on a Show—Interpretation by a Veterinarian

Perhaps your dog doesn’t love anybody but just wants something. This is the theory held by Fred Metzger, a veterinarian and lecturer at Penn State University. Metzger’s opinion is shared by many–but by no means all–veterinarians and animal scientists.

Metzger says, “Dogs probably don’t feel love in the typical way humans do. Dogs make investments in human beings because it works for them. They stand to gain something from putting so-called emotions out there. The more ‘cute factor’ they give us, the more we feel like they love us. This makes it more likely that we will give them more attention, food, treats, outdoor access—all based on how much of a show they put on for us.”

But there are other opinions, and there is also evidence for a dog’s ability to love.

Dogs Feel Pleasure–Neurochemical Evidence

Some of the evidence for a dog’s ability to love its owners comes from the science of neurochemistry. Scientists in this field now know that pleasure-causing chemicals exist in greater quantities in a dog’s brain after a petting session than before the petting. This would suggest that dogs do, indeed, love their owners.

According to Daley Olmert, author of Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, the primary chemical released into the dog’s brain during petting is oxytocin. Olmert says that oxytocin affects dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain, “coordinates a shutdown of this antisocial behavior called fight/flight and replaces it with a chemistry that promotes curiosity over paranoia.” In that mind-set, the dog can allow a human to approach and can take pleasure in interaction with humans.

Dogs Trust Their Owners and Communicate Well with Them–the Evolutionary Anthropology Perspective

A study on human-dog interaction is being done by Brian Hale, an assistant profession of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. In this study, which Hale lightheartedly calls “Does your Dog Love You More than a Stranger,” dogs are helped to find treats by their owners, who point in the right direction, and then by a stranger who uses the same gestures.

Results of tests with approximately 600 dogs have shown that dogs trust their owners immediately and also learn to trust strangers—not surprising—and that dogs are about as good at communicating with humans as young children are.

There is a reason for this, Hale explains. In evolutionary terms, dogs have somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years of experience at interacting with humans. A dog or wolf would find leftovers strewn about a human campsite and decide to stick around. Remaining in the presence of humans, the dog had what is called an “evolutionary imperative” to become less fearful and aggressive around humans. Over so many years, less anxious and less aggressive dogs might have become more trusting and better able to understand human instructions and communicate with humans. But more loving?

Dogs Do Feel Strong Emotions—the Perception in Primatology

Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall says it makes sense that a dog or any other animal in a closely bonded social group would experience strong emotions such as love. Such an emotion would allow each member of the group to maintain social bonds and to overcome all the divisive bickering and jockeying for resources that goes on within the group.

If Goodall’s reasoning is accepted, dogs in a pack must love each other; otherwise, there would be no pack. It seems likely, also, that a dog who is taken into a human household must love the human members of his new pack.

So, Do Dogs Really Love Their People?

There is no sure way to know for sure that dogs love their owners. The only things known for sure are that interaction between a dog and its owner is pleasurable for the dog and that the dog trusts and communicates well with its owner.

It does seem safe to assume that a dog feels love for its owner, however. It just makes sense that pleasure, trust and easy communication might lead to love. And it seems reasonable that love is the cohesive force in any dog pack or dog-and-owner pack.

So: Perhaps your dog does love you. Ultimately, you get to decide.

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