People love to talk about how much they love their dogs and will often mention that one special individual to whom no others can really compare. I wonder, are the dogs in our lives capable of these same types of feelings?
One of the problems with exploring the idea of love is the all encompassing nature of the word in the English language. We can love our mates, our children, our pets, or even a favorite desert; but these are all actually very different emotions. No one ever talks about how they’d jump in front of a speeding truck to save a piece of chocolate cake, after all! Other languages have different words for different types of love, but in everyday English we’re stuck with just “love.”
Psychologists have long used the word attachment rather than love to describe the bonds between people and are increasingly doing so with regards the relationship between people and their pets. The hormone oxytocin is important in the formation and maintenance of interpersonal attachment, and scientists are now looking at its role in the human-animal bond. A study published in 2009 found that owners’ oxytocin levels rose when they were on the receiving end of their dog’s gaze for long periods of time and interacted with them more. Research published in 2014 also showed that dogs experience similar increases in oxytocin levels when, after an absence, a familiar person enters a room and an even more prolonged increase if that person initiates physical contact with the dog. So it appears that at least some of biochemistry associated with attachment (or love if you prefer) works in similar ways for both dogs and their owners.
But is love all biochemistry? Perhaps the feeling is, but love is also a verb. The essence of acting out of love is to put aside one’s own interests, focusing instead on what is best for someone else. Dogs behave in this way on a regular basis. Stories abound of dogs saving their owners from poisonous snakes, fires, subway trains, accident sites, carbon monoxide poisoning, collapsed buildings, rising flood waters, snowstorms, people with bad intentions, attacking animals, and many other dangerous situations. In all of these cases, the dogs put their well-being and often their lives on the line to protect their people.
While we may never know exactly how dogs experience love, it seems obvious that they are capable of the emotions and actions that define the word. In the end, the bond that forms between people and dogs enrich all of our lives, no matter what we choose to call it.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Siniscalchi M, Stipo C, Quaranta A. PLoS One. 2013 Oct 30;8(10):e78455. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078455. eCollection 2013.
Dog's gaze at its owner increases owner's urinary oxytocin during social interaction. Nagasawa M, Kikusui T, Onaka T, Ohta M. Horm Behav. 2009 Mar;55(3):434-41. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.12.002. Epub 2008 Dec 14.
Dogs' endocrine and behavioural responses at reunion are affected by how the human initiates contact. Rehn T, Handlin L, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Keeling LJ. Physiol Behav. 2014 Jan 30;124:45-53.