Does My Dog Really Love Me? Scientific Research Says Yes!
My Old English Sheepdog Miracle gazes at me adoringly, and I feel a rush of love sweep over me as I pat her head and tell her that she's my “baby girl,” the “best doggie girl ever.” But does my dog feel the same love for me that I feel for her? Most dog lovers will tell you emphatically and without hesitation that of course their dog loves them back. However, many behaviorists have argued for years that the dog behaviors that we interpret as love are really just ploys to get rewards or attention. But good news—recent scientific studies provide evidence that there is indeed reciprocal love between dogs and their owners.
Proof in fMRI Studies
Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University spent two years training dogs to go into an fMRI scanner in order to find out how their brains work, and especially what they think of humans. Berns had lost his 14 year old Pug Newton, and after a long period of mourning his pet he wondered if Newton ever felt the same attachment. Since Berns had used fMRI Technology to study the human brain for 20 years, he decided that he could use the same science to learn more about the canine brain. He started the Dog Project, a study in which dogs would be treated as children. Great care was taken to assure that only willing participants would be selected, and that their owners understood any risks involved (although they were minimal). Dogs would be allowed to enter and leave the fMRI device at will. Berns used his own dog Callie for the first test subject. Callie, a shelter-rescued rat terrier, was a fast learner. Remarkably, she was taught to willingly and enthusiastically go into an fMRI simulator, place her head into a chin rest and stay completely still for up to 30 second time periods. Since fMRIs are noisy devices, Callie was also taught to wear earmuffs so that her hearing was protected. McKenzie, a Border Collie, was the next test subject. Word got out about the study, and within a year the number of canine participants grew to 15. It seemed as if Dog owners were anxious to find out what their pets thought about them.
Dogs and humans share many of the same basic brain structures that function identically, a phenomena known as a functional homology. The main section of the brain that Berns studied was the caudate nucleus, the dopamine rich part of the brain that plays a key role in the anticipation of pleasure in both humans and dogs. In humans, the caudate activity spikes when we anticipate things we will enjoy like food or love. The same spike in activity happened to the dogs in the study. The canine subjects' caudate regions lit up in anticipation of food, but more importantly the region lit up when their owners returned after a brief separation. In fact, Callie's response to the smell of Berns's sweat on a cotton pad was almost identical to human subjects when shown pictures of people they loved. These findings led Berns to conclude that dogs could experience an emotional life similar to a two and a half year old child. They love us and miss us when we're gone. As to the question “Do our animals mourn us when we die?” Berns feels that even with his fMRI Technology it would be hard to determine this since it's still not known what part of the brain is activated when humans feel grief.
Berns feels that his findings could have important implications concerning the way that dogs are treated, and that since they have feeling similar to humans, they should be treated more humanely. He makes a great case for this in his New York Times Oped "Dogs Are People Too."
Read More About Gregory Berns's Research
The Chemical Proof
An important hormone that humans and dogs have in common is oxytocin, often called the “feel good” hormone and the “molecule of love.” Associated with love, trust, and other pleasurable feelings, oxytocin is increased when you are touched by a loved one. Recent scientific evidence has shown that just the loving gaze of your dog can increase your oxytocin levels. In a study of 55 dogs and their owners, Miho Nagasawa of Azabu University found that people whose dogs gazed at them for two minutes or longer showed a higher increase of oxytocin than those whose dogs gazed at them for a shorter period of time. Imagine that—the “look of love” from your pooch can instantly make you feel better! But does this human/dog interaction make your pet feel better as well?
The answer is a resounding “yes.” Another study conducted by Johannes Odendaal and colleagues of theUniversity of Pretoria in South Africa demonstrated that there is a reciprocal rise in oxytocin when pets and their owners interact. After having their blood pressure taken and blood samples extracted, subjects were asked to spend a half an hour in a quiet room and focus only on their pets. The subjects spent 30 minutes talking to their pets and stroking them. Results showed that the owners' blood pressure decreased and they experienced an increase in oxytocin as well as beta-endorphins (linked to euphoria and pain relief), prolactin (promotes bonding), and dopamine (associated with pleasure). And guess what—as further evidence that dogs really do love their owners, it was found that the pets involved also showed an increase in oxytocin.
The Proof Is in the Yawn
An interesting phenomena demonstrated by both dogs and humans is contagious yawning. In a social group, when one person yawns, it sets off a reaction whereby others yawn as well. Studies have shown that in humans, contagious yawning is linked to empathy. The Dognition citizen-science project, conducted in Japan, proved that dogs yawn contagiously when humans yawn, showing that dogs really are in touch with humans. Not surprisingly, the study proved that dogs are much more likely to yawn when their owner yawns. In fact, another study done in Portugal showed that dogs are actually five times more likely to yawn if their owner yawns then if someone else yawns. Karina Silva, the lead researcher of the project claimed that these findings suggest that dogs empathize with humans, and particularly with their owners. So if you want to see if your dog loves you, do the yawn test. I just tried it, and guess what—Miracle yawned immediately!
What Do You Think?
Does Your Dog Really Loves You?
Although most of us dog owners don't really need hard proof that our pets do indeed love us, it's somehow comforting to have the scientific evidence to support our gut feelings. At least there are some facts to fire back at those annoying behaviorists when they say “Your dog only acts like she loves you to gain rewards.” The facts seem to indicate that our dog is indeed feeling the same love for us that we feel for them, that they empathize with us, and are emotionally connected to us. They are indeed our most loyal and best friends
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