Is your dog's affectionate gaze, happy tail wag, or slobbery kiss an expression of their love for you, or are you merely a reliable source of meals? Scientists have delved into this question and, to the delight of dog owners everywhere, it seems that our canine companions do genuinely harbor deep affection for us. So profound is this bond that it could rival, and sometimes surpass, their love for food.
Professor Clive Wynne, director of Arizona State University's Canine Science Collaboratory, firmly believes in this canine-human love connection. He affirms, "I am completely convinced that our dogs love us. There's no question in my mind." While his words come as reassurance, the challenge of proving love scientifically, a task that remains elusive even for human relationships, is no small feat.
To fill this gap, dog owners turned researchers have conducted studies that reinforce Wynne's claim. Dr. Gregory Berns, a neurologist at Emory University and author of the books "How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain" and "What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience," initiated a project after the passing of his beloved dog, Newton. Fueled by curiosity about dogs' emotional lives, Berns embarked on a remarkable journey of understanding the canine brain.
Through MRI scans of dogs' brains, Berns studied the cerebral response to a variety of scents from familiar and unfamiliar dogs and people. His study, published in Behavioural Processes, revealed that familiar scents sparked activity in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain associated with emotions, motivation, reward, and romantic feeling. An ensuing study in 2016 found that 86% of dogs showed a similar or even higher level of caudate activation in response to praise than they did to food, suggesting dogs' deep emotional attachment to their owners.
Complementing Berns' findings, Wynne, in a 2022 study published in Peer J Life and Environment, demonstrated that dogs, when left alone without food or human companionship, often prefer their owners over food. In a setup where the dogs could choose between their returning owner and a bowl of food, "Eight out of 10 times, the dogs chose their owner," Wynne reported.
Research from Japan also supports the notion of dogs' emotional attachment to their human companions. Takefumi Kikusui, a researcher in the School of Veterinary Medicine at Azabu University, discovered that dogs would tear up when reunited with their owner after a prolonged absence. Still, they did not show the same emotional response towards other familiar humans, as reported in a 2022 study in Current Biology.
Wynne, intrigued by stories of dogs' heroic actions during WWII, attempted to gauge the lengths a dog might go to express their love. He conducted an experiment where the dogs' owners pretended to be in distress inside a box to see if their pets would rescue them. Approximately one out of three dogs managed to do so, according to a 2020 study published in PLOS One. "That might sound superficially disappointing... Don't they care?" Wynne pondered. According to him, the issue wasn't a lack of care, but rather a problem-solving limitation on the dogs' part.
Wynne does caution us not to assume this profound love dogs harbor is unique to their human companions. Dogs can form strong emotional bonds with any species they encounter during their early life, Wynne explains. Hence, a puppy born on a farm could form as deep a bond with a sheep or a cow as with a farmer.
Observing everyday events, however, can offer some of the most heartwarming evidence of a dog's affection, says Wynne. "If you have a dog, your dog will be there at the door and your dog will be wagging his tail," he advises. "You're allowed to observe that behavior and believe what your dog is telling you. That is your dog expressing strong emotions at reuniting with you."
The profound bond between humans and their canine companions has survived the test of time and continues to baffle scientists. These creatures' love, loyalty, and devotion to their human counterparts surpass merely looking for their next meal. So, when your dog greets you with that joyous wag or a comforting nuzzle, remember it's more than just affection—it's love.