Does My Dog Love Me? Understanding Canine Emotions

Dog love
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Ask any dog lover the above question and you’ll likely hear an enthusiastic “yes!” before you can finish your query. But is it really true? Naysayers will argue that attributing such emotions such as love and trust on an animal is the antitheses of science. But dog owners and lovers attest that their canine companion’s wagging tails, enthusiastic greetings, and continual affection are hallmark signs of love for their owners.

Surely, our furry friends top the charts of most domesticated animal, and humans have interacted with dogs for thousands of years in many ways: from herding sheep and hunting birds to sniffing out drugs and guiding the blind. But what does science have to say on the matter? The answer to the age-old question of “does my dog love me?” may surprise you.

Are canine emotions the same as human emotions?

While the debate of a dog’s ability to feel human emotion has been argued for hundreds of years, it cannot be in question that dogs do have feelings and personalities. A canine, for example, which has been abused by man may fear all men for the rest of his life.

Nonetheless, even the most enthusiastic of dog lovers will probably not claim that a dog’s emotions are necessarily on the same level as a human’s, the latter of which can be complex and range across the spectrum—starting from simple feelings like happiness and anger to more complicated emotions like acceptance, optimism, and remorse.

Dog and woman

Anatomically speaking, humans have the largest frontal lobe of the brain of any animal—and it is this area that controls complex thought processes such as planning for the future, understanding language, problem solving, and social behavior.

Dogs, on the other hand, do not have a large frontal lobe. However, just like people, dogs are individuals, and their history, breed, and upbringing shape their temperaments and natures. Also in similar fashion, humans choose whom to bestow their emotions on, just as dogs can decide to whom to show affection. And if it is true that dogs can show great affection and fondness towards people, then it should go without saying that they don’t feel this way towards all people.

What about negative emotions?

Scientists seem wary of attributing positive emotions such as love towards dogs (or any other animals), but they don’t seem to have any hesitation about attributing negative emotions such as jealousy, aggression, or boredom towards canines. Perhaps science looks towards statistics for the difference: arguing with numbers in cases of dog attacks or pet destruction in the home.

Science directs us to look solely at behavior when observing animal behavior and making conclusions based on the findings, but the answer seems clear: behavior defines emotions. An aggressive dog may bare his teeth, growl, raise his hackles, and perhaps bite.

Dog with a flower

But a happy (or loving) dog might cuddle with his owner, lick her face, bark excitedly when she returns home from work, and try to sneak in the bed at night. It seems that no matter whether the emotion is positive or negative, the best mode of defining that emotion is by observing the behavior. To find out more on how dogs express negative emotions, please read our article on dog emotions.

Where’s the proof?

If behavior is science’s favorite way of making conclusions, then let’s look at some popular stories that make a strong case for the “pro” side of the argument:

  • At the 2011 funeral of Navy Seal Jon Tumilson, who was killed after his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, his faithful Labrador, Hawkeye, laid beside his casket inside the school gymnasium where the service was held and refused to move from the spot.
  • In 2006, an elderly couple in upstate New York was rescued in a snowstorm by their German Shepherd hybrid, Shana, who tunneled them out and dragged them back into their home. She acted as space heater until firemen arrived the following morning.
  • During the 9/11 terrorist attacks, guide dogs Salty and Roselle successfully led their owners down the stairs of the World Trade Center before its collapse, despite the debris and hysteria.
  • In 2013, a 22-year-old woman in South Carolina was convicted of child abuse after the family dog’s behavior alerted them that something was wrong. Killian barked and growled at the woman, which lead the toddler’s parents to set up an iPhone and leave it under the couch—the recording of which was used in the woman’s conviction.
  • In 2014, a Labrador Retriever named Daisy alerted her owner that something was wrong by repeatedly touching the woman’s chest with her nose. The owner went to the doctor and was diagnosed with breast cancer—which was thankfully caught in the very early stages.
  • In 2013, a family dog rescued an abandoned baby from a dumpster and carried the newborn girl in a plastic bag back to his home, where his owners rushed the baby to the hospital.
  • For almost 10 years after his owner’s death, an Akita named Hachikō went to the train station every day to wait for his owner to get off the train after work.

For all of these stories, there are hundreds more like it: dogs saving children from drowning, canines taking bullets for their owners during home invasions, dogs rescuing entire families from house fires, the list goes on.

Little kid and dog love

Throughout history, dogs have far outshined every other animal when it comes to helping and aiding his fellow man. Certain breeds, like the Saint Bernard, have historically been bred specifically to rescue people, and today, almost every service animal continues to be canine (although other animals have showed aptitude at tasks such as leading the blind). If you’d like to learn more about this wonderful breed, check out this great article on the Saint Bernard.

Need more proof?

They say the proof is in the pudding, but in this case, the proof of canine emotion is in a brain scan.  Two different studies—one in Budapest and other in Atlanta—both trained dogs to lie still inside an MRI machine. In the Budapest study, dogs were given headphones and listened to various sounds, including human voices.

The study revealed that there is an area of the dogs’ brains that responds to happiness: whether human laughter or canine barking. If the sounds were happy, the area of the brain showed an enormous amount of activity; if the sounds were unhappy, then that part of the brain did not light up on the scan as much. It is a very similar reaction to how human brains respond to positive sounds.

Couple and loving dog

The other study, which was completed at Emory University in Atlanta, came to the conclusion that dogs do indeed love us; the neuroscientist who completed the study with his own adopted dog found that when dogs were presented certain smells (specifically—the sweat of their owner), the area in the brain linked to the “reward” center lit up. The finding suggests that dogs can not only make the association necessary to differentiate between their owner and a stranger, but can also feel positive thoughts about their owners when their “humans” aren’t even present.

What about anthropomorphism?

That word is one the critics love for describing the practice of attributing human emotions towards animals. They say that dogs are simply animals whose sole purpose is survival, and their enthusiasm towards their owners is nothing more than ensuring their physical needs are met. Ivan Pavlov, who famously studied the effects of ringing a bell before giving a dog a treat, made this idea popular.

The Pavlov school of thought maintains that animals do not have emotional attachments to their humans, rather, they exhibit certain behaviors to ensure they are continued to be fed and watered. Critics will also say that attributing emotions towards dogs is nothing more than imposing our own feelings towards them, since they are incapable of feeling emotions like humans do.

So does my dog love me?

Dogs are social creatures that desire companionship; they thrive in the pack environment and flourish in situations where they have a “place” and a job to perform. Dogs have a place in history that no other animal holds: they have hunted and herded for us, guarded our homes and tracked the lost; they safeguard our airports and rescue people from drowning. They serve overseas with our military men and women.

They can detect illness with their nose and alert us to seizures before they happen; they help us carry on through hurt and loss, and can bring smiles to sick children in hospitals. They help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and provide cheer for the elderly in retirement homes.

Does my dog love me?

Is this a job we would entrust to a creature that is incapable of loving us back? If you are still wondering if your dog loves you, a better question might be, do you love your dog? Because the best thing about our canine companions is their unconditional love. They bestow their love on those who give it to them. So be careful with your furry friend; you may have several dogs that come and go throughout your lifetime, but for your dog, you are his life. And also remember that dogs show their emotions much differently from humans. To take the guesswork out of it, check our this wonderful article we have on reading dog body language.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.