Ask almost any pet lover whether or not their dog loves them, and you’ll get the same answer – of course she does! To many of us, the love we feel for our dog is obviously mutual.
But do dogs feel ‘love’ in the way that we understand it? Animals perceive the world and interact with others differently than humans, especially given our tendency to anthropomorphize them. What we perceive as ‘love’ very well could be something else.
However, the more we learn about them, the more it seems the answer to the question is a resounding ‘yes.’
Dogs can’t say it out loud, but we’ve developed other methods of determining their feelings. Specifically, studying their brains.
A few years ago, researchers trained a number of dogs to lie still in an MRI machine, and then introduced a variety of different scents to them, to measure brain response to the smell of humans. Not surprisingly, the study showed that the smell of the dog’s owner triggered activity in the reward centers of their brains.
Along with neuroscience, behavioral studies show strong indication that our dogs do actually love us. According to neuroscientist Attila Andics (the lead author of the study mentioned above), dogs view their caregivers much the same way that human babies view their parents, going to the caregiver when afraid or distressed, rather than running away like other animals.
Obviously, your dog can’t come out and tell you that he loves you. But most pet lovers are able to pick up on the subtle signs of his or her affection, and dogs have a few unique ways of doing this.
For one, dogs are the only non-primate animal that seeks to make eye contact with humans. When they do, their brains release oxytocin, a pleasure-inducing hormone—and so do ours.
“Our data suggest that owner-dog bonding is comparable to human parent-infant bonding, that is, oxytocin-mediated eye-gaze bonding,” says Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviorist who has studied the phenomenon.
Other behaviors indicating our dogs love us include their desire to have physical contact with us, particularly as a way of showing gratitude after we give them food. Another telling act is that our dogs actually want to sleep in our beds with us.
“Dogs are highly social, but they are also very flexible. They will prefer to be with the members of their social group, whether it is other dogs, cats, children, or adults. Where they prefer to sleep indicates who they consider their BFFs,” Berns writes in The Wall Street Journal.
The way your dog reacts to you leaving or arriving home is also a strong indicator of her fondness for you, according to Berns. If you’re skeptical, he suggests watching how your dog reacts to other humans coming and going who they haven’t formed a bond with.
For any of you dog lovers, we don’t have to convince you that your dog’s love and affection are real. But for the skeptics out there, science seems to agree with us.