Does my dog really love me, or am I just a food delivery system?

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It certainly looks, sounds and feels like genuine affection but is the love felt by an owner for a pet reciprocated in kind? For dog owners there is no more interesting question.

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We recently returned from a trip to Orlando and as usual Lorna’s two dogs Riqui and Brie were excited to pick us up at the airport (ably assisted by Lorna’s husband Jason). The reunion was touching… lots of licking, panting and petting (but enough about Lorna and Jason..the dogs were just as bad (…happily they had just used some Dog Smog Remedy and Dry Dog Instant Clean so they smelled great:-) As we drove home it made me wonder about the age old question “Does my dog actually love me? (Or in this case do Lorna’s dogs actually love her?)

It certainly looks, sounds and feels like genuine affection and for many people their relationship with their dog is more long lasting and meaningful than many human relationships in their lives. But is it actually love? Or more precisely is the love felt by an owner for a pet reciprocated in kind? For dog owners there is no more interesting question.

The idea of an animal having real emotions is easily dismissed as wishful thinking. But further study reveals it to be a more complex issue than one might think.

Lets look at Riqui, a pure-bred Maltese, she is indeed the result of hundreds, if not thousands of generations of selective breeding designed to amplify her breeds affinity for humans. (An affinity that is more welcome after a little Ruff to Smooth I might add) But just because these attributes have been selected and amplified over time doesn’t mean that they are not genuine. (I come from a long line of fishermen and I’m sure my dislike of seafood stems from that fact but my distaste for fish, I assure you, is real). Riqui is a genuinely affectionate (some might say needy) dog. She has been bred to be that way however there is no doubt in my mind that she is actually happier when Lorna is around.

All animals, including dogs have a pleasure center in the brain (in fact the brain has several areas associated with pleasure: the nucleus accumbens, the septum pellucidium and the hypothalamus… seems that we’re hard wired to enjoy life). When a dog is playing, dopamine is released into these areas and creates a feeling of happiness. The mechanism is almost identical in both dogs and humans- seems we are more alike at a fundamental level than we might have imagined.

Some fascinating research has been done in the last few years that sheds new light on this similarity. In 1990 Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma discovered what are now referred to as mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a brain cell that not only fires when an animal acts but also when the animal sees that same action in another. They are essential for socialization within a species but also have been shown to work across species. Can anyone say empathy?

“We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti says. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

Any one who owns a dog already knows that they have a tremendous capacity for connection, especially with humans. I would suggest that part of the reason for this is because our two species evolved together. Recent studies suggest that dogs were domesticated very early on in the history of Homo Sapiens and played an important role in our success as a species. Our symbiotic relationship enabled both species to survive and thrive in an inhospitable world. Dogs provided everything from an early warning system against predators to assistance in herding domesticated animals. In turn humans provided shelter and food for their faithful companions and together we learned how to relate, communicate and empathize. This relationship has lead to a more comfortable and longer life for dogs .

One oft referenced quote on this subject comes from a gentleman named Fred Metzger a veterinarian from Penn State who observes “Dogs probably don’t feel love in the way humans do. Dogs make investments in human beings because it works for them. The more ‘cute factor’ they give us, the more we feel like they love us. This makes it more likely that we will give them more attention, food treats, outdoor access”.

But a competing opinion comes from Susan B. Eirich, a biologist and psychologist who cites Jane Goodall’s research with chimpanzees as evidence that animals do indeed have deep emotions. Eirich states, “From a behavioral perspective, it only makes sense that animals would experience emotions. Goodall notes that social animals must be able to read other animals in their society to be able to maintain social bonds.” If history has shown us anything it is that survival is not only for the fittest but also for the most cooperative.

“When you think about it,” explains Eirich, “strong emotion underpins social behavior and connection.”

So I think we can make the case that animals in general, and dogs specifically do feel real emotion but the question is do they love?

The obvious (if somewhat anticlimactic) answer is that we’ll probably never know, but more than anything this question gets to the heart (no pun intended) of how we gauge love? How do we know that we love one another? One simple measure is how much the person (or animal) is willing to sacrifice for the loved one. We revere hero’s, lovers and mothers because of their selflessness- the hero dies to save his friends and the mother subsumes her life in her child’s. In Christianity we idolize the man who gave up his life not for his friends but his enemies. This is a thorny issue when it comes to animals because even though there are numerous stories of dogs sacrificing themselves for their owners the question is are they aware of exactly what they’re sacrificing?

Bearing this limitation in mind can we imagine a creature more self sacrificing than our dogs? They live lives completely determined by their owners. They eat when we say, sleep when we say and even poop when we say (yes I know the irony of this supposition for many dog owners out there…but play along with me here) more importantly, they are always happy and joyful to live that way because it enables them to interact with humans.

We judge love on a sliding scale: we wouldn’t expect a 5 year old to be capable of the same devotion and self sacrifice as an adult. Most mothers will tell you that even though they fell in love and got married they had no idea what love really was until they had children. I suggest that we must afford the same courtesy to dogs. Admittedly their love may not be human, but this is not completely a bad thing, it may not conform to our standard of the ultimate level of connection but at the same time it’s also not fickle, transitory, petulant or selfish.

It may be the greatest complement to say that dogs love to the best of their ability, and it gives us a chance to reflect on whether the same can be said for ourselves.

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