Dog owners can rest easy — there's proof that dogs love us back

Jun 17, 2016 at 7:07 a.m. ET
Image: Tiffany Hagler-Geard/SheKnows

If you're a dog person, you undoubtedly think of your canine companions as four-legged members of the family. You may call them your fur babies. You spoil them, you play with them and above all, you love them. But do our dogs really love us back?

It's basically sacrilege to suggest otherwise to dog people. Of course our pups love us! Right? Right?

As it turns out, this has been a point of contention in scientific circles for quite some time — with some experts pointing to pack hierarchy as evidence dogs don't love humans so much as they exhibit submissive behavior or act in a way that ensures their needs are met, i.e. getting food and going outside. However, evidence to the contrary is on the rise.

Are our dogs as devoted to us as we are to them?

A study out of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, bolsters dog lovers' belief that, yes, our dogs do really love us. And, what's more, the way they experience friendship and love is similar to the way we humans do.

For the study, animal cognition scientists trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine (and here I can barely get my dog to shake!) so that functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, could be used to measure their neural responses to the smell of other dogs and of people.

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What the scientists found was that a whiff of the dogs' owners lit up the "reward center" — an area known as the caudate nucleus — of the dogs' brains. Above all other odors available for sniffing, it was the smell of their owners that dogs prioritized.

Another study out of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest underscored the neural connection reinforcing the dog-human bond by revealing that the auditory cortex of both humans and dogs is sparked by happy sounds. For dogs, such happy sounds include their human's voice.

Do dogs and people love differently?

According to Gregory Berns, the neuroscientist who devised the study out of Emory University, dogs do feel emotions similar to our own. For the next, as of yet undocumented phase of his research, he intends to prove this point by analyzing brain scans from dogs being offered treats.

"If, as many scientists have argued in the past, it is all simply about [getting] food for dogs, then the reaction in their brains would be the same no matter who or what is offering them the food," he explained in his book How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. "We hope to show that they love us for things far beyond food — basically the same things that humans love us for, like social comfort and social bonds."

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Certified dog trainer Leslie Burgard agreed, telling researchers at Penn State, "Their loyalty is unconditional, much like that between a parent and child. For the most part, our dogs would go to bat for us, even on our worst and most intolerable days. All parents have days when they may not really like their kid that much, but they always love them unconditionally — even parents of troubled or criminal children love them on some level. The love and the loyalty that drives that emotion is instinctual... I think dogs have a 'love' or connection with their humans that is free of preconceived perceptions."

What are some signs your dog loves you?

Looking for more than simply anecdotal evidence your doggy truly adores you? Here are six signs, according to scientists and canine experts.

1. Your dog wants to cuddle after they've eaten

If your pup snuggles up to you before their daily meal, well, it's entirely possible they're trying to sweet-talk you into filling their bowl. But if they cozy up to you after their belly is full, when securing their next meal is no longer a priority, they're doing so out of pure affection.

2. They look you in the eye

As part of a 60 Minutes special, Anderson Cooper tapped dog researcher Brian Hare to determine whether or not his dog, Molly, loved him outside of being a food source. "The most interesting thing that Brian Hare said to me, that has stuck with me, is that when dogs are looking at you, they're 'hugging you with their eyes,'" says Cooper. This simple act apparently releases oxytocin, the same hormone that helps new mothers bond with their babies.

3. Your dog doesn't freak out when you leave

If your dog dreads the moment you leave the house and/or creates chaos in your absence, it isn't necessarily a qualifier of love. In fact, it's more likely the clinical condition known as separation anxiety, says Berns. Rather, if your dog is chill when you leave the house, it means they trust you to return — an unequivocal sign of respect and affection.

4. Your dog is happy when you come home

While your dog freaking out as you leave your house isn't necessarily a good sign, freaking out when you return actually is. If your dog approaches you, tail wagging, you know he or she is excited to see you. This can obviously also manifest in jumping, barking and lots o' face-licking.

5. Their faces are very expressive around you

In a study out of Japan, researchers introduced dogs to a parent, a stranger, a dog toy and an item they didn't like. When pups saw their people, their eyebrows — especially the left one — immediately went up. Similarly, upon seeing a favorite toy, their left ear went back. In general, though, the dogs were much less expressive around people they didn't know or things they didn't like. So all those adorable doggy faces you can't help posting to your Instagram? More proof of your pooch's devotion.

6. Your bed doubles as your dog's bed

As pack animals by nature, dogs are highly social creatures and prefer to be in the company of fellow pack members. As their human, you are part of that pack. So are any other pets in your household. So if your dog chooses to sleep with you above anyone (or anything) else, you've secured BFF status.

How can I test my dog's love?

If being greeted every day at the door with slobbery kisses or curling up together on the couch at night simply isn't enough to convince you that your pup reciprocates your love, give this little trick a try from Hare: yawn in front of your dog.

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According to Hare, a new study from the University of Tokyo found that dogs — like their human counterparts — are susceptible to contagious yawning, a sign of empathy. What's more, though, dogs are more likely to contagiously yawn around or in response to someone they are emotionally bonded to. So go ahead, give it a try. If you're wondering how much your doggy adores you, just yawn.

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