When my Old English Sheepdog, Miracle, gazes at me adoringly, and I feel a rush of love. I wondered if dogs love us back in the same way?
Do Dogs Feel Love?
When my Old English Sheepdog, Miracle, gazes at me adoringly, I feel a rush of love sweep over me as I pat her head and tell her that she's my “baby girl” and the “best doggie girl ever.” But does she 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 there's 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, 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, as 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 phenomenon 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 which 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. Since they have feelings that similar to humans, he believes they should be treated more humanely. He makes a great case for this in his New York Times op-ed, "Dogs Are People Too."
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, a researcher at Azabu University in Japan, 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 his colleagues at the University 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 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 phenomenon 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!
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
What Do You Think?
Sources and Further Reading
- Canine fMRI Reveals What Dogs Think of Humans | Psychology Today
How the dog on SEAL Team 6 inspired me to train dogs for brain scanning By Gregory S. Berns...
- Dog Kisses are More Than Just Slobber | Pets Health | LiveScience
Dog kisses not only entertain pet owners, the dog-human contact actually improves owners' stress levels as revealed by blood chemistry.
- Really? Yawning is Contagious Between Dogs and Their Owners
- Dog Yawn Study Links Canines' Contagious Yawning To Empathy
Observant dog owners know that if they yawn, their dog is likely to do the same. It’s called contagious yawning, and it’s something that we do with one another, too.Evolutionary biologists say that we yawn when we see someone else doing so because of
- Dogs copy their owners yawn - Home - ShortList Magazine
Dogs copy their owners yawn-The sleepy twerps
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 30, 2018:
Margaret, I adopted my dog, Cookie from a shelter. She had been abused and abandoned. She has epilepsy and lately has developed gall bladder disease. She is so adorable and loves to come to me and be petted. Despite her health issues she shows so much love. Great article, Margaret, I enjoyed it.
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on May 30, 2015:
Dressage Husband - interesting about dressage horses being in sync. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on May 30, 2015:
MelRootsNWrites - I agree that there is so much more to learn about animals, and I hope that they continue to research the subject. That's so cute that your dog gives hugs. Thanks for stopping by!
Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on May 27, 2015:
Not only dogs , but cats and horses too. Our cat even loved the horses and vice versa. Horses have been given the same scan and dressage horses and ridert actually appear to be thinking in sync during rides.
Melody Lassalle from California on May 27, 2015:
Well, it is about time that science figured out what every dog owner already knows. I've always believed that dogs have the ability to love and that they are empathic.
On a side note, I taught my dog to give hugs. I was quite surprised when she started to initiate them herself. No, not the humping thing that some dogs do. It is a gentle embrace with her head lightly on my shoulder. I think there are things we do not know about dogs and are yet to make some wonderful discoveries about their behavior and their connection to humans.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful read this morning!
Brian McDowell from USA on April 13, 2014:
That's probably more an appeasement signal, also known as a calming signal. She probably can read your facial expression and tone of voice to know you are unhappy with her, and she gives that expression to try to calm you down and show she's no threat/challenge to you.
I don't think dogs "know" they are doing something wrong, per se, or at least they don't have any response until there's a consequence, especially for a self-rewarding behavior like taking food off the table or chewing your slippers, etc - and even then, it's best to catch them in the act since after the slippers are chewed and then they see you, they'll likely connect your response to what they are doing at that moment, which might be coming to greet you.
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 13, 2014:
kblover - body language in humans and dogs can certainly express so many things. Experts say that dogs can't feel guilt, and yet from my dog's body language I swear that she looks guilty when she's done something bad.
Brian McDowell from USA on April 12, 2014:
" Most of us, however, are not able to understand a single word any animals says."
Yep - and being verbal creatures, we often forget how to read body language - both of other humans and canines. Sometimes, being able to write and talk can be a curse as well as a blessing. Of course, since dogs "speak" mostly in body language...
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 12, 2014:
Au fait - I'm sure you're right about dogs mourning the loss of loved ones. I've seen the same thing with dogs that I've had in the past.
So glad you stopped by and read this.
C E Clark from North Texas on April 11, 2014:
Having grown up on a small farm, I know that animals aren't so different from people in that they each have their own unique dispositions, personalities, intelligence, and more.
Scientists may not have proven it yet, but animals do mourn the loss of loved ones, whether those loved ones are other animals like themselves, humans, or friends of a different species.
I remember well how my dog cried when his best friend, a cat, was run over by a car and was dying. I remember how that same dog moped about and was totally forlorn when my mother left him and never came back home to him because she had died.
Animals have been proven to understand a small human vocabulary of 2-300 words but because of the shape of their jaws, etc., they cannot speak our language. Most of us, however, are not able to understand a single word any animals says.
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on February 11, 2014:
Electro-Denizen - Yes, our two articles are very similar in their message, and I was thinking the same thing. Glad you stopped by to read this, and thanks for taking the time to comment.
Electro-Denizen from UK on February 11, 2014:
Oxytocin... contagious yawning due to empathy... it's all making sense :-)) This links in so well with the hub I just wrote on animal altruism and intelligence but I dare say you have the scientific edge here! Very interesting, I may have to link from my hub to yours to complement.
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on February 10, 2014:
kblover - Amazingly, some studies think that some dogs can understand as many as 160 words, and that their grasp of language is about the same as an average 3 year old. And I'll bet that you're right, that they actually grasp the meaning of what we say to them, even when they don't understand the words themselves. You must see this all of the time as a dog trainer. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on February 10, 2014:
kblover - Amazingly, some studies think that some dogs can understand as many as 160 words, and that their grasp of language is about the same as an average 3 year old. And I'll bet that you're right, that they actually grasp the meaning of what we say to them, even when they don't understand the words themselves. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Brian McDowell from USA on February 10, 2014:
"I have always thought that this insistence on associating animal behavior with pure instinct was preposterous, and based mostly on human arrogance that we are somehow on a different level from the other animals."
So much of what dog's "can't do" is couched in the implicit "like a human". For example, "dogs don't understand words". Like humans? No, but they can be taught meaning just like if you asked a kid "what's a ball?" they'll get a ball and show you or describe it (taking a mental image and putting it into words), not give you the Webster's definition. Dogs do the same via behavior (grabbing a ball and bringing it to you, recalling a mental/scent image of the object).
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on February 09, 2014:
Mel - I never looked at it that way, but you're right - it is arrogant of humans to view animals like that. Thanks for reading and commenting - it's much appreciated.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 09, 2014:
I have always thought that this insistence on associating animal behavior with pure instinct was preposterous, and based mostly on human arrogance that we are somehow on a different level from the other animals. I am glad you have pointed out this evidence that supports that dogs, and other animals, are not much different from us at all, with the exception that we can walk upright, which gives us a tremendous advantage. Great hub!
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on January 30, 2014:
kblover, I agree about the behaviorist standpoint, and I guess the same can be said for humans being programmed to use certain behavior to get attention. It's nice that this study shows that humans and dogs are really quite similar with their emotional lives. So glad you liked this hub, and thanks for taking the time to leave such a great comment!
Brian McDowell from USA on January 29, 2014:
This is awesome. Always nice when science confirms things like this - debunks yet more myths about dogs just being simple emotionless animals that are one step from organic robots with fur.
Great hub and enjoyed reading it. Now excuse me while my dog and I stare and yawn at each other :D I think I have a sweaty sock for him to sniff too :D
From a behaviorist standpoint, it still shouldn't be surprising. Dogs use body language to communicate and express their emotions. Yawning is a social/calming signal at the minimum.
Dogs probably DO use these things to try to solicit care/attention (it's what puppies do, part of their innate "programming" - just like when my dog Wally gets "out of the blue" super affectionate, a seizure might be coming on and he's like "can you help me?" or "I'm scared, daddy!") but it's now we know they also might just want our company instead of a treat or a game. What they might want is some emotional support!
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on January 29, 2014:
I wasn't really surprised either - it seems so obvious to anyone who is bonded to their dog that the love goes both ways. However, it's been a long time argument with behaviorists, who insist that their behavior is merely manipulation. Thanks so much for reading and commenting - I really appreciate it.
Christy Kirwan from San Francisco on January 29, 2014:
Can't say I'm surprised, but I'm glad to hear it verified by science! Great Hub. :)
mecheshier on January 25, 2014:
You are most welcome mperrottet.
Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on January 25, 2014:
mecheshier - I agree with you on both points. All of my pets have had such different and unique personalities. I'm glad you enjoyed this hub, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment and vote.
mecheshier on January 24, 2014:
Fabulous Hub. I was just talking about this with a friend of mine. I feel that All animals have their own personality. And Yes, they can certainly feel and show love.
Thank you for such a well researched post. Voted up for useful and awesome! :-)