I love my dog more than I love most people in the world. It’s that overwhelming sort of love in your gut that you can’t really articulate. But my dog is also terribly annoying and horribly trained, mostly in regards to food; he will bark incessantly for food (seriously, it doesn’t stop until he gets food, and often he’ll keep barking even after he’s eaten). His barking drives my dad, sister, and myself totally crazy, but my mom consistently makes excuses for his awful behavior, saying things like, “aw, he’s just trying to talk to us” or “but he’s just hungry!”. So of course he’s going to continue barking for food when his barking always results in my mom feeding him (it’s a prime example of classical conditioning).
This is how my dog looks at you when you’re eating.
And my dog loves my mom the best, you can just tell. When we all walk in the door after dinner or a family vacation, she’s the first he runs to. If we take him on a car ride and she leaves the car for a second to run into the grocery store, he will stare out the window crying until she comes back. But I always wondered, does he truly love her most because he spends the most time with her, going on walks and sitting around the house, or does he love her because she’s the one who most frequently feeds him? Does he love all of us? The type of love that we feel toward him? Or does he just want food?
So I decided to delve into this topic and try to find an actual scientifically proven answer instead of continuing to speculate on my own—I really do hope that my dog truly loves me though, or else my heart will be broken. I first found this Mic article, which discussed a recent study that attempted to find out exactly what I was wondering—do dogs really love us? This study, conducted by researchers at Emory University, measured twelve dogs’ brain responses to various smells, their strongest sense, using fMRIs. They tested five smells: a familiar person (e.g. their owner), an unfamiliar person, a familiar dog, an unfamiliar dog, and itself. The brain scans showed that the dog’s caudate nucleus, an area of the brain associated with reward, experienced increased levels of activity when given the smell of a familiar person. I believe that this shows that dogs have positive associations with their owners, but I’m not sure that it proves that they love us. This could mean that the dogs associate their owner with a reward (i.e. food), and that is why their reward center in the brain is activated with the presence of the familiar person’s smell.
So I kept looking to see if I could find more evidence as to whether dogs really love us or not, and found this article, which used the results of another Emory University study to claim that our dogs do love us.
The study trained fifteen dogs to associate various objects with various outcomes: a pink toy was associated with receiving food, a blue toy with praise from their owner, and a hairbrush (the control) was associated with no reward. The researchers then used fMRIs to determine the brain’s reaction to the sight of the different toys. The results: nine of the fifteen dogs were equally excited by the pink toy (food) as they were with the blue toy (praise), four of the fifteen were more excited by the blue toy (praise), and two of the fifteen were more excited by the pink toy (food).
The researchers then tried to observe the dogs and see whether their behavior would show a preference toward food or praise. The dogs had to navigate their way through a maze and at the end of the maze they could either choose to eat a big bowl of food or go toward their owner. The four dogs who in the fMRI scans showed the most excitement about praise went right toward their owner, the two who showed a preference toward food went right to the food, but the nine who showed equal preference switched between which choice they made, and often seemed distressed about which to choose. I think that this also shows that most dogs do have an attachment toward their owners, but once again it doesn’t show the mechanism—is it because of love or is it because of food and praise?
Unfortunately, it seems as though I still don’t have a clear answer to my question. I will continue to analyze my dog’s every move, thinking that his cuddling up to me in bed is a sign of his affection toward me, but maybe he is just cold. I guess I’ll just have to keep hoping that my dog, although he may love us for giving him food, loves us equally for our companionship.