As I settle on the couch for movie night, I glance over at my dog and see her gazing back at me, her eyes full of love and adoration. She seems overwhelmed by affection for me, staring hard, and even gives a little whine as if to say, “I love you so much!” Then I follow her eyes more closely and see the true object of her desire: the bowl of buttered popcorn sitting on the table beside me.
I swear my dog loves me, I can see it in her eyes, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between love and hunger.
How dogs love us
Research on animal emotions is still a burgeoning field, but in recent years, much attention has been given to our pets’ capacity for love. Ask any dog lover and they’ll tell you: of course my dog loves me! But dogs can’t share their feelings in words, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if what they’re feeling is “I really love you” or “I really want a bite of your steak.” Thankfully, recent studies have found that there is a difference.
In the book How Dogs Love Us, Dr. Gregory Berns, a researcher at Emory University, shares his research on canine brain activity. Using carefully-trained test subjects and an MRI machine, Berns found that the reward centers of dogs’ brains “light up” when dogs are presented with a reward (in this case, a hot dog).
This result may seem unsurprising; after all, we’ve all seen how excited our dogs get for sausage! But in more complex tests, Berns proved that the exact same area of the brain lights up when dogs smell the people and other dogs they live with, proving that dogs have positive feelings for their people even without the promise of a hot dog.
So does this mean what we think it means? In the video below, Dr. Berns answers the question: do dogs love their humans?
“I think the answer is definitely yes,” Berns says. “They love us for things far beyond food. Basically for the same things that humans love us for, things like social comfort and social bonds.”
It’s reassuring to know my dog loves me for me, and not just for the popcorn I sometimes toss her way.
Your dog may also love a goat
If dogs can feel love for their people, it’s only natural to assume they can feel love for other species as well. My dog Radar and my cat Richie often spend hours curled around each other on the couch, making me wonder, do dogs fall in love with other animals?
According to a small-scale study conducted by Professor Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University, the answer is yes. Zak specializes in the study of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love chemical,” the main chemical that causes mammals to form bonds with one another.
In humans, oxytocin levels rise when the subject interacts with people (and dogs) they love. Professor Zak wanted to test whether dogs’ “love chemical” levels rise around loved ones, too, so he decided to study a pair of unlikely animal friends: a dog and a goat.
The two animals were already friends, so Zak and his team separated them for a while, tested their oxytocin levels with a humane blood draw, then reunited the boys for a play session. After playtime was over, the team retested the animals’ oxytocin levels and found a noticeable rise in both. It sounds like a case of a goat and a dog in love!
The role of the love chemical
But does the love chemical affect how dogs love humans? In 2013, scientists in Japan conducted a study that determined “in the domestic dog oxytocin enhances social motivation to approach and affiliate with conspecifics and human partners, which constitutes the basis for the formation of any stable social bond.” In other words: the love chemical totally works on dogs.
This particular experiment involved spraying bottled oxytocin on dogs’ nostrils and observing their behavior around people, and combined with Dr. Zak’s study of oxytocin levels produced within dogs’ own systems, it’s compelling evidence that dogs experience connection, even love, a lot like we do.
Of course, research on dogs in love is still getting started, and it could be many years before scientists say with absolute certainty that dogs fall in love. It’s important to take a logical look at the facts, objectively measure the evidence, and oh, who am I kidding, I know my sweet doggy loves me sooooo much!
In all seriousness, studies do seem to confirm what we dog lovers already know: our dogs are as crazy about us as we are about them.
Top image via Flickr/danikoetz