Does My Dog Love Me?

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

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? Yet, the lingering question remains: do our dogs love us back?

What does research say?

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

Why odors? Dogs navigate the world with their sense of smell. Unlike humans, dogs depend on smell more than sight to interpret their surroundings. The way dogs process and respond to smells reflects their feelings. 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 it “lights up” when exposed to pleasurable experiences – in both human and canine brains. For example, the smell of your favorite meal might light up your brain. In this study, dogs responded more favorably to human odors than any other odors, including the scent of their canine companions. Moreover, a dog’s caudate nucleus was activated most significantly when the dog smelled someone they knew. A similar response occurs in humans when they are shown photos of people they love.

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 responds much the same as the human brain does, by lighting up the auditory cortex. This finding 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 loves you – and not just for a fresh bag of kibble or a walk in the park.

  1. Your dog is happy to see you. Your dog may jump and bark and get overly 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 with their owners after mealtime.
  4. Your dog likes to sleep with you. Dogs are inherently alert to threats in their environment and lie 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. When they snuggle with you on the couch, it is a sign they feel safe 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 aggression among dogs. 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 workout, 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 cannot 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 cannot get enough of your company.

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

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