Do Sparks Fly for Sparky?
by Nate Briggs
We love our dogs. There is no denying that there exists a special relationship between us that has lasted for thousands of years. After all, they have earned the title of “man’s best friend.” However, there is a lingering question that has crossed every dog owner’s mind at one point or another: do our dogs love us back? Do our canine companions truly care, or is this an unrequited love of Shakespearian proportions?
Fret not, doggie lovers! I have some good news for you. But first, find out about the unique aspects of our long founded, cherished relationship.
The human-canine connection represents a unique interspecies bond. Since the domestication of dogs from their wolf ancestors between 11 and 16 thousand years ago, dogs have had a major impact on our development as a species. They have played a wide variety of roles in our lives, acting as guide dogs, sled dogs, hunting dogs, herding dogs, drug dogs, rescue dogs, therapy dogs – you name it! If this is not enough proof, ask anyone who has been to Puppy Tuesday at the Cathedral or Learning. They would be more than happy to tell you about the benefits of having a furry, smiling face to pet.
Nonetheless, we are most familiar with the role of dogs in the modern family. A 2011 survey by Del Monte Foods showed that 81 percent of dog owners consider their pooches to be equal members of their families, while 35 percent of those surveyed even admitted to referring to their dogs as “son” or “daughter.” In a separate poll, 45 percent of dog owners reported that they take their pets on vacation, and 50 percent were “very likely” to risk their lives in order to save their pets.
Yet, is it even possible for dogs to reciprocate these feelings? Researchers believe that when it comes to the emotional capabilities of dogs, their brains are roughly equivalent to that of a two-and-a-half year old infant. This means that dogs are most likely incapable of showing more complex emotions like shame, pride, guilt, or contempt. Nevertheless, they are still capable of love!
First off, what kinds of internal systems help us humans experience this love? According to some research studies, it is the release of oxytocin, which helps facilitate our love for dogs. Informally known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and has been found to have an impact on emotional responses that contribute to psychological stability, trust, relaxation and social bonding.
This functioning has been demonstrated in various studies. One particular experiment showed that after interacting with their dog for 30 minutes, dog owners had increased levels of oxytocin in their urine as opposed to those who were instructed not to look at their dogs.
On the other side, our canine partners also use oxytocin as a means of bonding. An experiment performed at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia showed that dogs sprayed with oxytocin displayed higher social orientation and affiliation towards their owners.
These tests support the mechanisms contributing to our experience of love and its similarity in both sides of human-canine relationship. However, what is it that sets these mechanisms into motion? Is there something inherent about the human-canine relationship that causes us to hold them in such high regard? Some scientists would argue that our relationship with our dogs is akin to the love that exists between parent and child. Perhaps if we examine the psychology of dogs and humans, we will find some striking similarities.
At the University of Tubingen Medical School in Germany, a study was conducted to measure the brain activity of mothers who were shown images of their dog and their child. While there were some key differences in brain activity when shown the separate images, similarities were noted in the perceived emotional experience and brain function associated with the mother-child and mother-dog bond. Perhaps the reason these “pet parents” feel this way is because the dogs are acting like human children.
We can test this notion by reproducing a famous 1970 experiment by Mary Ainsworth, which was used to evaluate the types of attachment human babies exhibit towards their primary caregivers. In her “Strange Situation” experiment, Ainsworth investigated how the babies reacted in certain situations involving their caregiver versus someone that the baby was not familiar with (e.g. alone with caregiver, alone with stranger, reunited with caregiver, etc.). If a dog displays the same type of attachment to their owner as babies do to their parents, could this mean they love us?
One of these tests was carried out at the University of Milan, Italy in 2003. The experiment involved 38 adult dog-owner pairs being observed in a room, introduced to a human stranger, and subjected to four short periods of separation. The dog’s behavior in the presence of the stranger was remarkably similar to that observed in human infants and chimpanzees. However, the researchers could not definitively conclude that the human-dog relationship constitutes an identical attachment bond.
Nevertheless, recent studies are confirming our suspicions that this attachment bond does exist. A 2013 study showed that dogs display a secure-base effect that is also stunningly similar to that of human babies. In this phenomenon, the attachment figure (the dog owner) acts as a base of security that the dog can return to after exploring its environment. To be able to conclude if this similar means of attachment constitutes as love, it would be conducive to probe even further into dogs’ perceptions of us.
Looking into yet another aspect of canine psychology, in contrast to other domesticated animals, dogs are also the only ones shown to run to their owners when they are worried or scared. As observed by neuroscientist Attila Andics, "bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets." Another very interesting feature of this bond is that dogs are the only non-primate animals to look people directly in the eyes for visual cues. Domesticated dogs actively seek eye contact from people, which they do not exhibit even with their own biological parents.
It is possible that this bonding is due to the fact that dogs are better at reading us than we give them credit. As most dog owners know, you can point to a ball or some other toy and your dog is most likely able to find it. Interestingly, this is something that even our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, cannot carry out. In addition, one very recent study showed that dogs were able to discriminate between happy and angry emotional expressions of human faces, giving further credence to the validity of a canine grasp on human emotions.
Now that we know dogs have a unique relationship with us and are indeed capable of loving us, do they actually? One neuroimaging study concluded that the answer is most likely “yes.”
The investigation involved training dogs to lie still in an MRI machine. While the dog was presented with familiar and unknown odors, their neural responses were measured. The scientists found that the scent of their owners stimulated the reward centers in the dogs’ brains. Since canine olfactory capabilities are perhaps their most important tool, it was an obvious place for the researchers to start. The dogs were found to prioritize the scent of the owner over that of others, displaying a positive association with the scent and associated companion.
While dogs do not experience the love that humans do amongst themselves in terms of its degree of complexity, it is obvious that they do care about us. Since love is a complex and difficult emotion to define, it is arduous to assuredly say that dogs do “love” us.
Still, we can conclude that their relationship with us does encompass more than just a need for food and shelter. There seems to be a fundamental type of kinship that our dogs actively seek out in us, and our bond with them is affectionately unique. They seem to be better able to analyze us than even our closest friends, and they prioritize our needs over the barrage of stimuli they are exposed to every day.
So, don’t worry! Next time you hang out with Sparky, you can look into his eyes and know he is truly and utterly devoted to you.