Are Dogs Capable of Showing Love?

February 13, 2014

By Linda Cole

My dogs don’t lose sleep worrying about what to get me for Valentine’s Day. They snooze through TV commercials for flowers and candy, and their idea of a night out on the town would involve me chasing them after they’ve escaped from their dog pen. Fact is, dogs have no concept of Valentine’s Day…but they are capable of showing love. It might not be the same way we express our fondness for one another, but dogs do indeed have feelings of love.

We know dogs share some of the same emotions we have. They can become jealous, angry or depressed. Dogs show joy and express their happiness with a wiggling body when they see their favorite person. Research has also shown that dogs are capable of showing empathy to us and other animals. Many people claim their dogs can also express love, and now there is research to back up their claims.

The debate over which emotions dogs can feel has been going on for years. However, as scientists continue digging into the canine mind, they are learning that the bond we share with our dogs is more than just providing them with security or their favorite CANIDAE food. It’s deeper and perhaps even more complex than we know.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta trained 12 dogs to remain calm and relaxed inside an MRI machine so clear images of the brain could be seen without having to sedate the canines. They focused on the area of the brain associated with positive emotions, and found that dogs and humans share the same brain structure that controls emotions. We share the same hormones, and have the same chemical changes that take place in the brain.

When dogs are stroked and petted by their owners, their brain releases oxytocin, which is the same pleasure hormone that gives us a calm and happy feeling when we interact with someone we love. Dogs are social animals, and like us, need emotions to help convey to others how they’re feeling. Emotions also play a role in keeping a social group together. It’s what creates loyalty, trust, and motivation to support others and work together for the common good.

When it comes to intelligence, mental ability and emotions, most dogs are equal to a 2½ year old child. At that age, a child is capable of showing fear, anger, suspicion, joy, shyness, distress, contentment, excitement, disgust, affection and love. So it would stand to reason these emotions are ones dogs also feel. The emotions dogs don’t have are shame, guilt, pride and contempt. The emotions of kids and dogs are honest and pure, and leaves no doubt how they’re feeling. Dogs cuddle with us on the couch, lean against our legs, and wiggle all over when they see us because it makes them feel good to be next to the ones they love.

I read a true story recently about a dog named Rocky and his young owner, Rita. It’s a heartwarming tale about the deep love Rocky had for Rita and the immense fear he had to overcome one day in order to save the girl’s life. The bond we share with a dog is woven together with trust and love, a mutual respect that honors who we are as individuals. Ignoring one’s own fear to save a loved one is the ultimate act of love.

Dogs have been giving us unconditional love for at least 15,000 years, and possibly even longer according to recent findings of two 33,000 year old canine skulls in Siberia and Belgium. Our evolutionary paths became one long ago. What likely began as a mutual agreement between man and wolf for food and security, slowly evolved into a shared respect and trust between two social species that value the family unit. Having affection for family members is an emotion we certainly share, and our social contract is one reason why we’ve been successful.

We don’t always understand why our dogs do some of the things they do. I’m sure we can be as perplexing to them at times, too. But dogs know us a lot better than we realize. They can read our emotions and understand our body language and tone of voice. They are protectors of home and family, companions that keep us company and bring us joy. We may not get a Valentine’s Day card that expresses how our dogs feel, but all we have to do is look into their shining eyes to know that their love for us is as real as our love is for them.

Top photo by Joe Futrelle
Middle photo by Luiz Gustavo Leme
Bottom photo by Just Jefa

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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