Do dogs feel love?
We were talking about making our guests feel loved at a recent meeting, something we talk about often at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, when we were sobered by the comment that dogs are technically not supposed to feel love. Have you ever heard that before? The presumption (I just can’t bring myself to call it a “fact”) that dogs do not have the capacity to feel love has been taught for years in Animal Behavioral and Training schools. Experts believe that dogs may have many of the same feelings that we have, but love is not one of them.
I was floored, and upset. As a dog person, I would not even question the capacity of a dog to feel and give love. I see the dog as the actual embodiment of pure love. To hear that “dogs cannot feel love” is a foregone conclusion – accepted and taught in schools – just blows my mind. It broke my heart to think that Rex may not understand how much I love him.
We discussed dogs and love a few years back in a blog entitled “Puppy Love”. Back then we were specifically looking at two of our Campers that “fell in love”. The two sought each other out of the pack and played together sweetly and gently. It seemed they were even affectionate with one another. We were kidding when we said they “fell in love”. Of course a dog is unable to feel a “romantic” love that one person feels for another, but they certainly experience a very strong type of fondness and attraction, whether it be to another dog or a person. Is it so crazy to call that “love”?
I knew this was a subject I was going to have to look into it further. There had to be more than a few people like myself – even experts – that believe a dog’s feelings and emotions surpass what is commonly taught. Scientists seem to find it hard to accept that a dog has feelings… I don’t know why. But those of us who have a relationship with a dog totally get it. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, I just couldn’t accept the status quo. I learned a lot in my research, and I’m excited to share it with you.
The most interesting thing I read about dogs and their emotions was an article by Dr. Stanley Coren in Psychology Today. He says that science once believed that humans and dogs were simply “machines” with mechanical and chemical processes. No, I’m not kidding. Then “religion” stepped in, as Dr. Stanley puts it, and injected there has to be more to humans than just a mechanical apparatus, so they proposed that the difference between humans and animals is that humans have a soul, but animals do not. Because of the human soul, humans are able to experience emotions. Thus, animals cannot experience emotions. Basically, the conclusion at that time was that a dog is nothing more than a machine that can be programmed to do things. This was back in the 1500- 1600’s. We have certainly evolved since that time as we know so much more about the body, it’s chemistry, the function of the brain and how it works in both humans and animals. But still, there are those who do not believe that animals are capable of a full range of emotions – including love? Seriously?
Okay, so that was a long time ago. Mr. Coren brought us back to more current times by explaining that researchers have found that dogs have the equivalent mental capacity of a 2 – 2 ½ year old human, a fact we have discussed in previous blogs. A child begins emotional development at birth and is able to experience a full range of emotions by age 5. They begin to feel love and affection at around 9 or 10 months. A dog will feel all the same things a child will feel up until the child reaches 2 – 2 ½ years, at which time the child begins to develop more complex emotions and a dog’s emotional development will end. A dog will cycle through emotional development more quickly than a child, having achieved its full emotional capacity – including love and affection – by 4-6 months of age.
Are you familiar with the Oxytocin studies on dogs in 2015? In addition to many other functions in the body, oxytocin serves as a chemical messenger that affects human behavior, particularly observed in parental bonding and romantic love. Oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland when people hug, snuggle or feel a romantic attachment. So when levels of oxytocin were tested in dogs and found to spike or increase when interacting and gazing into the eyes of their owners, it must have knocked the socks off the researchers that believe dogs can’t “love”. The study validates that physiologically, the same emotional attachment occurs between dogs and humans as it does between humans and their babies! I don’t think there is a stronger connection than that between a mother and her child. That’s a lot of love.
More recently, Neuroscientist, Gregory Burns, studied the brain patterns of dogs inside of an MRI. That must have been some impressive training to get a dog to be still inside an MRI Machine. Anyway, dogs in the study were presented several types of stimuli, including their owner’s scent. When they recognized their human’s scent, brain activity increased within the part of the brain that plays a key role in things we enjoy, like food, love, and other positive emotions. And guess what? It’s the same thing in humans. What? You mean dogs feel the same things we do? Yes, I’m being facetious.
Carl Safina, an ecologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island and a “MacArthur genius” grant winner, who has written 9 books about the human connection to the animal world. When asked, “Do you think your dogs love you?”, his response was “That’s easy. Yes! And I don’t need to scan their brain activity to know this. They show it in their actions and the choices they make. Our dogs sleep on the floor in our bedroom just to be near us.” I like this guy. Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University who specializes in dog behavior, says that dogs have “an abnormal willingness to form strong emotional bonds with almost anything that crosses their path.” Call it a “strong emotional bond”, an “attraction”, or maybe “love”? I like this guy too.
Call it what you want
It is said that we can’t interpret a dog’s behavior and actions to mean the same as human ones. Okay, I’ll buy that. But we can get an idea of how they’re feeling by their body language, their expressions, their conduct. So, I’m thinking, we humans call it “love” …. There is, without question, some type of a similar feeling in dogs that we just don’t understand. Dogs may not have a word for love, but they demonstrate to us a certain set of behaviors that really means the same thing. That being said, the disconnect comes because we have language. We can put labels on those feelings but an animal cannot. If anything, their love – or whatever their “word” might be – exceeds the boundaries of our love in many ways. It truly is unconditional, undiscriminating, shameless and fervent.
In Britain, there is a morning show much like our “Good Morning America” called “Good Morning Britain”. In August this past year, viewers were outraged after a guest on the show insisted that pets – dogs in-particular – do not feel the emotion of love. She said that “Pet owners need a “reality check”, as pets are not capable of love.” Oh my goodness, she ignited a fire! Later, producers took a poll on Twitter asking their followers if they really thought dogs were capable of loving us as much as we love them. 94% said yes, and only 6% said no. So the tide is turning, right?
Dogs and humans have coexisted for 16,000 years. Maybe in the beginning, dogs didn’t understand love, but there is no doubt that these amazing animals have evolved to recognize and replicate that feeling. How do we know they love us? They are fiercely loyal, they like to touch us, they want to protect us, they’re joyful when we come home, they choose to be with us. The bond with our pets is powerful and emotional. They love us. One day, maybe sooner than later, I think they will change what they teach in school.
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If you need a place for your pet to enjoy a staycation that will love them as much as you do, reach out to Holiday Barn Pet Resorts at either our Glen Allen or Midlothian location. Call ahead to reserve a spot at our pet resort!