We know that we love our dogs. Mine are as much real members of the family as my wife and children and my little granddaughter, Reagan. But do they love us back?
Recently, scientists have begun to explore more deeply the question of which emotions animals feel and how they display them. What they’ve found bolsters my belief even further.
Here are some of the ways, through body language, brain response and the choices they make, that I think our dogs show us love.
Sight, Sound, Smell
They are willing to make eye contact with us. In the world of dogs, making eye contact can be an aggressive act. Polite dogs, who just want to get along, avoid the long, hard stare that can intimidate or challenge other dogs. They don’t stare at people that way either, but they accept our looks of love and will even seek out eye contact from us. When our dogs are happy and comfortable with us, they give us that special gaze that says, “All is right with the world.” Their eyes are relaxed and normal size, showing little of the white. To build a closer relationship with your dog, you can teach him to look at you for guidance.
They react happily to the sound of our voice. Don’t you love it when you come home and call your dog, and he comes bounding joyfully to you? It’s even more special when he leaves a fascinating scent or favorite toy (or brings it to you) to come and greet you. I think it’s one of the best feelings in the world, even if sometimes it’s just cupboard love.
They know our scent. Did you know that your scent triggers activity in the reward center of your dog’s brain? The area known as the caudate nucleus is rich in dopamine receptors, and in humans, it lights up when we anticipate pleasurable experiences, such as eating Mom’s fried chicken or reuniting with someone we love. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when he trained dogs to enter an MRI machine willingly and unsedated and then scanned their brains while presenting them with the odors of different people, only one type of smell activated the caudate: that of someone they knew. In his book, How Dogs Love Us, he writes: “Could it be longing? Or love? It seemed entirely possible. These patterns of brain activation looked strikingly similar to those observed when humans are shown pictures of people they love.”
They wag their tails. Lots of people think a tail wag is always a friendly gesture, but it can have lots of different meanings — some not so nice. But when our dogs give a full-body wag with the tail held at mid-height, the message is clear: They’re happy and excited to see the person they love. Take a close look next time you see one of these happy wags: If your dog’s tail wags more to the right side of his rear when he sees you, it’s a signal that he feels good about your presence. That intriguing bit of information was discovered by an Italian neuroscientist and two veterinarians who used cameras to track the tail-wag angles of 30 pet dogs as they were shown their owner, a person they didn’t know, a cat and an unfamiliar dog. When the dogs saw their owners, their tails wagged most strongly to the right side of the body.
They snuggle with us. Touch is an intrinsic part of any loving relationship. There’s nothing so satisfying as sitting or lying on a sofa or sprawling on the floor with one dog tucked in at the crook of your knees and a couple more snuggled in on either side of you. Other dogs might lean against us, sleep with a head on our feet or lay a paw on our knee. I don’t know that there’s any scientific proof that this means our dogs love us, but it sure feels that way to me. They could lie on their beds or curl up with each other, but they choose to be physically close to their human family members. That’s really special.
They smile at us. Canine smiles have several meanings, but when your dog’s mouth is open and relaxed, what you’re most likely seeing is a calm, happy dog. That expression may demonstrate that our dogs are glad to see us, according to research showing that humans and animals use the same muscles to express emotion — including the muscles that form a smile. Naturalist Charles Darwin, who loved dogs, wrote about canine affection for people more than 100 years ago: “But man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master. Nor can these movements in the dog be explained by acts of volition or necessary instincts, any more than the beaming eyes and smiling cheeks of a man when he meets an old friend.”