Fri, 04/26/2024 - 8:07pm

Do Dogs Actually Love Us?

Or are we just kidding ourselves?

Do dogs really love us? Or is it just that we’ve chosen to interpret many of their actions toward us as love?

Well, until dogs can learn how to utter those “three little words,” that’s probably a question that will be unanswered and remain subject to speculation. I won’t deny I’ve been of the opinion that dogs are the ultimate manipulative con artists, and indeed have written several stories that I thought effectively proved that to be the case. 

But now there’s some evidence to suggest I may have been wrong.


A little love from Old English Sheepdog Lexi helped chase the blues away.


In my defense, I chalk up my possible wrongheadedness on the topic of dogs’ love to the cynicism built over the course of more than 40 years as an investigative reporter. Indeed, about 10 years into my career, I was discussing a story I was working on with a friend of mine who was an FBI agent. About halfway through my narrative, he stopped me and, shaking his head in wonderment, said I was as cynical as any 20-year homicide detective. So you can probably guess the heights to which my personal level of disenchantment with the human race had risen with an additional 30-plus years on the job.  

But while no one can convince me that I’m wrong about humans’ willingness to lie even when they would be better served by telling the truth, it’s possible I may have been a little short on being right about dogs’ motivation for many of the things they do. 

Could it possibly be love? 

There is a study by Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, that seems to suggest that it is — and that I’ve been wrong all these years in my assessment of the reasons why dogs do what they do in their interactions with us. 

Like a lot of dog people, I’ve often wondered why dogs are so ecstatic when you come home after a few hours’ absence. Or, why, without any encouragement from you, they are so quick to put their head on your lap when you are feeling down and why they put their paw on your arm when you slump, tired and discouraged, into your favorite chair. There has to be some reason why they sit on your feet and gaze soulfully at you, frequently cocking their heads from side to side whenever you talk to them. What makes them want to jump up on the bed every morning to snuggle and shower you with dog kisses? Why do they want to “walk point” wherever you go in the house and outdoors, even though there have not been any acts of terror in your neighborhood in recent memory?


Why do dogs insist on “walking point” wherever you go in the house and outdoors, even though there have not been any acts of terror in your neighborhood in recent memory?


According to Dr. Berns’ study results, it may very well be that they really do love us.

Dr. Berns spent much of the time while doing this study by, among other things, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in an effort to determine what was going on in dogs’ heads. That was tougher than it sounds, because the dogs had to be trained to hold absolutely still to get a good result. What did he discover in his studies? Something almost every dog lover has always at least suspected: Dogs aren’t faking it when they act like they love us.  

Dr. Berns and his team confirmed this through a series of tests that looked at different areas of a dog’s brain and how they responded to different stimuli. For example, in one test, they alternated between giving the dogs pieces of hotdogs and offering them praise. When they analyzed the results from the pleasure centers of the dogs’ brains, the researchers found that almost all the dogs responded to praise with at least as much pleasure as they got from the hot dogs, and a fifth of the dogs actually preferred praise to food. The study concluded that dogs derive as much pleasure from love as they do from food.


Finnigan, an Otterhound, helped relieve pre-finals stress for University of Wisconsin Parkside students.  


Much of the scientific community believes that dogs are incapable of higher emotions such as love. Acts of love would be part of a phenomenon known as “theory of mind,” which requires a complex ability to understand the thoughts of others, something dogs are incapable of doing, according to most scientists. It’s also true that evolutionary psychologists, among others in the scientific community, call dogs “social parasites.” They claim dogs evolved from wolves to exploit the human weakness for cuteness and that they have just figured out clever ways to manipulate us into opening a high-priced can of premium dog food or scooping out some kibble that retails for more than $5 per pound and dumping it into their dishes. Stephen Budiansky, a historian and science writer, for example, says that dogs belong to “an elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession, the ones who will pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it.” 

My cynical streak would tend to agree with Budiansky’s interpretation, that some motive other than love lurks behind how dogs react to us. But the investigator part of my makeup concedes there is no real evidence to support his contention. Indeed, I have given my dogs marrow-filled, roasted beef leg bones that the owner of the local meat market prepares and sells for just slightly less than the cost of a one-carat diamond. While they’ve walked away with the bone, always with some serious smiles and tail wagging, they didn’t smirk or call me a sucker and laugh their heads off as do most human con artists when they’ve successfully snookered a victim.  

When I return home, even after only a couple of hours of absence, my dog is not pretending to be happy to see me any more than I pretend to be pleased to see him. The joy I see from him is just as real as the pats and “Hi, buddy” he gets from me. No other animal has such an intimate psychological union with people, and only dogs seem capable of reading our thoughts or sensing our moods. German dog trainers call this Gefuhlsinn — a feeling for feelings. 


Norwegian Elkhound Briskke provided company for a group of pre-school kids in a story-reading session.


On the other hand, you can leave a cat alone in your house for days as long as there’s enough food and a litter box available, and when you return, they’ll barely notice. That’s not true with dogs. They require constant active participation on the part of humans, and, the truth be told, we don’t merely “own” a dog in the traditional sense of ownership because the dog also owns us. What’s truly amazing about dogs is that they love us no matter how rotten we may be. When even our nearest and dearest are thinking homicidal thoughts about us, the dogs still think we’re wonderful.  

Perhaps the main reason why dogs and humans have such an intense relationship is simply because we understand each other’s emotional responses. The sheer joie de vivre that my dogs exhibit when they run after a bumper, find and flush or point a bird, or fetch a bird is immediately recognizable as something the people watching them work have also experienced.  


Bullet, a Doberman Pinscher, gives some love to his owner.  


Dogs have developed an ability found almost nowhere else in the animal world in that they can read human body language and expressions. In fact, Berns found evidence of this in his MRI studies. But there’s no evidence that they exploit this ability to con us into feeding them, petting them, scratching their ears, rubbing their tummies or to elicit any of the other expressions of love and pleasure we provide for our dogs. So “parasites” is a pretty strong word, and not really accurate.

While the early dogs, without question, benefitted from the warmth of the cavemen’s campfires and the shelter provided by the caves, as well as the scraps of meat tossed to them by their human pals, the dogs also made important contributions to the early humans’ lives by hunting and serving as guards. The cavemen could sleep in peace knowing that some roving saber-toothed tiger couldn’t sneak up on them undetected when the wolf/dogs were stationed at the mouth of the cave. For reasons lost in the mists of prehistory, humans and some dog precursor worked out a business-like arrangement in which they helped each other out. Like many relationships that start out as business, friendships developed, and over the millennia those friendships soaked into our DNA as love.


Gabby, a Curly-Coated Retriever, clearly loved her owner and vice versa.


In her book The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, anthropologist Pat Shipman speculated that Homo sapiens are the ultimate invasive species, and the domesticated wolves that eventually became Canis lupus familiaris gave us a competitive advantage against our enemies, Homo neanderthalensis. Dogs weren’t so much pets for the early humans as they were allies in hunting big game and providing protection. If Shipman is correct, while dogs evolved to depend on humans, humans also evolved to depend on dogs. From this perspective of the two species’ makeup, it would seem that dogs and humans are genetically programmed to depend on, cooperate with and love each other.  

It would also seem that further evidence of this, at least on the human side, is that most people view their dogs as family. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of dog owners consider their dogs to be part of the family. Ninety-four percent of dog owners say they feel “close” with their dogs, which is an amazing number, since only 87 percent report feeling close with their mothers and 74 percent with their fathers. A survey done a few years ago found that 54 percent of pet owners considered themselves to be “pet parents” rather than “pet owners,” and more than two-thirds of the “pet parents” got birthday and Christmas presents for their animals. (For reasons that defy logic, many “pet parents” also wrap these gifts.)  

So, while it’s possible dogs may be genetically programmed to con us, if the word “con” is defined in the broadest, most pejorative manner, the dogs themselves aren’t part of the scam. Maybe they do the things they do — excitement at seeing us return, empathy when we feel bad, snuggling and showering us with kisses, “walking point” — because they actually love us. 




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