Does my dog love me? Scientists vs. Dog Lovers


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

One of the greatest unanswered questions for dog lovers is, “Does my dog love me?” For a real dyed-in-the-wool dog lover, this ranks right up there with, “Do dogs go to heaven?”

Can dogs feel the same way about us as we feel about them? Can they actually love us?

Most dog lovers will tell you they “know” their dog loves them. They are confident in this belief because they love their dogs and their dog at least appears to love them too. However, whenever we talk about emotions in dogs we need to be careful that we don’t anthropomorphize. When we anthropomorphize, we give human qualities to animals – and sometimes we get a little sloppy in doing this. For more information on this, see Dog Owners Frequently Get This Training Concept Wrong.

Scientists vs. Dog Lovers – Round 1

Some animal behavior scientists will tell you that we can only know what we observe in animal behavior and no more. Everything else is conjecture. That may somewhat limit our ability to understand animals, but it is a valid point because we can’t ever know what a dog (or other animal) is thinking. Sadly (or maybe not so sadly if you think about it) we can’t talk to dogs to understand what they are thinking. We can only observe. For this reason, some scientists will tell you that we will never know if a dog can, or does, love us.

Score: Scientists 1, Dog Lovers 0

Scientists vs. Dog Lovers – Round 2

Dog behavior consultants like me work with dogs with all kinds of behavior issues such as separation anxiety, generalized anxiety and compulsive behaviors. As part of the treatment plan, we may consult with a veterinarian about using psychopharmaceuticals (e.g., antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, etc.). These medications are the same ones that are used to treat similar issues in humans. Doesn’t this at least imply that canine cognitive processes have to, at a minimum, be similar to humans?

Score: Scientists 1, Dog Lovers 1

Scientists vs. Dog Lovers – Round 3

In a recent study, Paul Zak, Ph.D., separated dogs from their owners and their pet's saliva was tested for oxytocin; this is the "love hormone" humans and animals produce when they feel affection. Owners were then reunited with their pets and oxytocin levels were tested again. Their dogs' level of oxytocin shot up an average of 60% when reunited with their owners. Voila!

Score: Scientists 1, Dog Lovers 2

Scientists vs. Dog Lovers – Round 4

Dogs have a brain that is smaller than in humans but very similar in structure. MRI studies have consistently shown that dogs’ brains respond to social and emotional cues in a way that is congruent to the human response to the same stimuli. Are we seeing a pattern here?

Score: Scientists 1, Dog Lovers 3

Winner: Dog Lovers! That was a fun exercise, but will we ever be able to know that dogs love their owners?

This article is not particularly scientific or scholarly as you have guessed. It is purposefully skewed so that dog lovers win (I wouldn’t have it any other way).

In making the argument that dogs have the capacity to love their owners, we almost always have to use anthropomorphisms and anecdotal evidence – not great science.

But, just about everyone I talk with who spends a lot of time with dogs is confident that dogs feel virtually the full range of emotions that humans do – and one of those is “love” for us (or its dog equivalent).

Just like in humans, “love” will never let us scientifically quantify or measure it.