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Does My Dog Love Me?

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Pet Services

As dog owners, we readily acknowledge that we love our dogs. Why else do we get out of a warm bed and take them outside in freezing temperatures early in the morning? Why do we leave a great restaurant before dessert and head home to feed them? Why do we immediately forgive them after they chew our favorite slippers? To say that dogs are “man’s best friend” is an understatement for many of us. Yet, the lingering question remains….Do our dogs love us back?

What does research say?

An innovative team of scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia took a clinical approach in investigating the emotional state of dogs. Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), the scientists scanned their brains while exposing them to certain odors. Changes in brain function provided data on the emotional state of the dogs.

Why odors? Dogs navigate the world with their sense of smell. In fact, dogs, unlike humans, depend on their sense of smell more than sight to interpret their surroundings. The way dogs process and respond to smells reflects their feelings. The experiment used odors to stimulate the canine brain. Using MRI, scientists measured the neural responses of dogs as they were exposed to odors of both familiar and unfamiliar people and dogs.

The experiment revealed that when a dog smelled the familiar aroma of his owner, the “reward center” of the brain (caudate nucleus) was activated. The caudate nucleus contains many dopamine receptors and in human brains, like canine brains, it lights up when exposed to pleasurable experiences. For example, the smell of your favorite meal simmering on the stove might light up your brain. Of all the smells presented to the dogs, they responded more favorably to human odors than to the scent of canine companions. Moreover, a dog’s caudate nucleus was activated most significantly when the dog actually smelled someone they knew. A similar response occurs in humans when they are shown photos of people they love.

"A dog’s caudate nucleus was activated
most significantly when the dog actually
smelled someone they knew."

In related research performed in Budapest, scientists studied canine brain activity when exposed to sound to learn what happens inside the dog’s brain when we speak to them. When exposed to happy sounds, the canine brain responded much the same way the human brain does by lighting up the auditory cortex. This illustrates the effective communication that occurs between dog and human, validating the human-animal bond.

Through science, we have learned that our canine friends are social, emotional beings that respond to human smells and voices. They react with joy to our scent and respond to the tone of our voice. Science proves that part of the canine brain is associated with positive emotions and they do, indeed, feel love for their human companions.

How can you tell if your dog loves you?

Here are some indicators that your dog really does love you for more than a fresh bag of kibble and a walk in the park:

  1. Your dog is happy to see you. Your dog may jump and bark and get over-emotional when you walk through the door. Or perhaps, he is more subtle and simply wags his tail to the right at the sound of your greeting.
  2. Your dog gives you presents. Sometimes your dog brings you his favorite toy ready to play, but often, he presents it as a gift. He wants to “share” his favored possession with the person he loves.
  3. Your dog puts you second only to food. Next to food, your dog craves you! Dogs live in the “now.” When they are hungry and are presented with a bowl full of food, they will forgo human interaction for the glory of a good meal. However, when the bowl is empty, dogs want you! Many dogs want to snuggle their owners after mealtime. 
  4. Your dog likes to sleep with you. Dogs are inherently alert to threats in their environment and lay in a defensive position when sleeping in the wild. They place their noses to the wind to pick up threatening scents and their backs to other pack members to form a protective circle. The fact that they are willing to snuggle with you on the couch is a sign that they feel safe with you and consider you part of their pack. You are part of their inner family circle.
  5. Your dog looks at you with loving eyes. Making direct eye contact can be interpreted as an aggressive action in the canine community. When two dogs meet, one will look away in deference to the alpha dog. When your dog looks at you with eyes that are relaxed and pupils that are normal size, he is gracing you with a loving gaze.
  6. Your dog does not care about your appearance. If your dog cuddles you when you have stinky morning breath, after a sweaty work out, or when you have a crazy hair day, chances are it is a case of true love. Dogs really do love us unconditionally.
  7. Your dog follows you everywhere. If you feel like you can not take a step in the house without your dog at your heels, consider yourself loved. Dogs cling to you for more than just security. Unlike other human companions, they can not get enough of your company.

Feel better? Now you can remain secure in the affection your dog feels for you. Your dog loves you!

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