Man’s best friend earned that honorable title by teaching humans the importance of unconditional love for thousands of years. With every tail wag, excited bark, and gentle nuzzle for affection, dogs have displayed what definitely seems like love toward us. They have made us laugh and cry and have always been there for us through the difficulties of life. Most dog parents are certain that their dogs love them, but since dogs can’t speak those crucial three words, how do we know for sure?

Thanks to increased research into canine behavior, we’ve gained enlightening information about what our dogs actually think of us. An animal behaviorist at Azabu University in Japan studied the effects of humans and dogs gazing at each other. Unlike other mammals where direct eye contact is viewed as aggression, humans and dogs frequently communicate using eye contact. The behaviorist suspected this might be similar to mothers looking at their babies and the biological response that occurs during this interaction. Sure enough, the studies found that mutual gazing caused levels of oxytocin – the hormone involved in social bonding – to increase dramatically for both dogs and owners.

Another study conducted at Emory University in Atlanta determined that the scent of a dog’s owner elicits a strong reaction in the portion of the dog’s brain that is associated with positive expectations. When also presented with a stranger’s scent, the dog’s own scent, a familiar dog’s scent, and an unfamiliar dog’s scent, the brain scans indicated the dog’s most significant response was to its owner each time.

Perhaps the most compelling study regarding a dog’s love for its owners was undertaken by canine scientist Clive Wynne. Wynne recalled a study that had dog owners pretend to have heart attacks to observe what the dogs’ responses would be. The dogs involved did not appear to do anything to help their owners. Wynne wondered if this was because dogs don’t love their owners, or if they simply didn’t know what to do to help.

To find out, Wynne built a box that study participants had to crawl into and act distraught, as if they were trapped. One third of the dogs rescued their owners from the box, while all the dogs acted extremely upset. Wynne and his team conducted the study a second time and taught the dogs how to open the box before putting their owner inside. When the owner cried out for help, all the dogs opened the box. This suggests that with the heart attack study, the dogs just didn’t know how to help, or they would have.

While these studies probably confirm what we’ve known – that dogs do indeed love us – they also highlight what makes dogs special. Dogs can form strong emotional bonds with us and any other type of creature if raised with them when they are puppies. This capacity to bond makes them unique in the animal kingdom.

A dog’s love is not exclusive to humans but perhaps we have benefited from their love the most. As canine research continues to grow, I imagine we’ll discover even more ways a dog’s love helps us.

References

Brulliard, K. (2019, September 25). What makes dogs so special and successful? Love. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2019/09/25/what-makes-dogs-so-special-successful-love/

Grimm, D. (2015, April 16). How dogs stole our hearts. Retrieved from Science Mag: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/04/how-dogs-stole-our-hearts

Langley, L. (2014, March 24). Dog Brains Link Pleasure With Owner’s Scent. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/3/dogs-animals-pets-science-brains-scents/