In honor of the upcoming holiday this week (that would be Valentine’s Day, not my birthday) I thought it would be germane to write about the one thing every dog owner has wondered about at one time or another. Does my dog love me? Who hasn’t looked into those soft liquidy eyes, waited for that slobbery tongue to hit your cheek, and thought, “he loves me.”
Well….does he? Or is it a conditioned response because you stuck your head too close to his? Or she knows that you are the treat-giver and this act by her elicits a positive response from you, i.e. affection, treats, etc. So what are the facts, the science behind it? Does your dog actually experience the emotion of love?
Humans are primates. Dogs are wolves. I’m not going to delve into a training-dogs-as-wolves conversation here (that’s another blog), I’m simply making the statement about evolution and biology. We are under the primate umbrella in the animal kingdom, as dogs are under the wolf umbrella in the animal kingdom. That being said, think of how we greet people- we say hi, walk forward, shake hands, hug if we are familiar, face front, and look people in the eye. Dogs greet each other from a side approach. They circle each other, sniff, and will avoid direct eye contact. A frontal approach with direct eye contact to a dog is threatening. Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. has a wonderful discussion of this very subject in her book The Other End of the Leash.
As primates, we show affection to each other by hugging and kissing. Think of the chimpanzees you see at the zoo, they are very affectionate; always grooming each other, hugging and even kissing. The hugging is referred to as ventral-ventral contact (chest to chest or face to face). Wolves don’t hug. Putting a paw on the shoulder of a dog can be seen as aggressive, as this is something that social status seeking dogs would do in an initial greeting.
Emotions of Dogs
In order to understand this, we need to look at this from a scientific perspective- very unromantic I know. What are emotions? For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll discuss it in three categories. This is a synopsis as presented by John Bradshaw, anthrozoologist in England. The first category are the physiological emotions. These would be the ones that are instinctive and don’t have to be learned such as fear, anger, anxiety, and happiness. You don’t have to teach a dog what to do if there is a threat; they all may respond differently based on their experiences (freeze, run, fight, etc.) but no dog will beg for a treat or try and lick the face of the offender. The next category is behavioral- for dogs these are expressive displays. Dogs have incredible facial and body language. As primates, we read wolf language poorly (also another blog topic!). The third category is subjective, feelings such as guilt, worry, and love.
Much like the human brain, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rise when a dog is under stress but also when approaching a potential sexual partner. Endorphins are produced during play and physical contact. This shows the link between the physiological and behavioral emotions, but not necessarily subjective, i.e. love. However, Mr. Bradhsaw’s cumulative research shows which emotions dogs do experience.
So love. Love is subjective and distinct because it involves the hormone oxytocin. It is known that dogs experience a surge of oxytocin during friendly interactions with people. Their blood pressure goes down as well (much the same for humans by the way). Oxytocin levels quintupled, and endorphins and dopamine levels doubled. Think about that. Does your spouse make you feel that way? A study was done with dogs and humans to test the attachment to humans versus dogs (published in The Veterinary Journal 165, 2003). When dogs were placed with other dogs, and then the companion dogs were removed, the levels of hormones decreased- as expected. When dogs were placed with humans (gentle stroking and play) and the humans left, the dogs attachment to humans was more intense than that of their own species.
Domestic dogs are bred to please humans. The surge of oxytocin in the brain when you walk into the room, and the subsequent drop when you leave compared to the lesser surge when they play with their favorite toy or doggy friends sure seems like proof of love to me. So on Thursday when you stare at your dog and wonder if he loves you when he licks your face, or just wants that peanut butter treat, you can bet that he loves you.