Rick Allen is an obedience specialist who, perhaps unsurprisingly, identifies as a dog lover. But there is one moment that he particularly notices – a moment when what he believes a dog is subtly letting him know that love has gone both ways.
“I fell in front of my house a few years ago while dating Jack, a five-year-old black and white ‘Heinz 57’ mix out of a dog I adopted a few years ago,” Allen said via email to salon. Allen “knocked his ankle up” while outside. Injured, he waited in the driveway for his daughter’s help.
“Jack was sitting next to me with his paw over the same leg of the foot that I injured by the time it got there,” he said.
In interviews for this story about whether or not dogs can feel “love” as we know them, numerous test subjects have described similar experiences – those mystical moments in which people, based on the abundance of soul in a dog’s eye or a similar paw hug , felt completely certain that their dogs loved them.
A self-described “dog fan”, Jean Alfieri is an award-winning author who wrote a popular canine story, “Zuggy the Rescue Pug”. She remembered the moment she befriended Wyatt Wyatt, “a little dog who fills the room with his big, exuberant personality”. She has no doubt Wyatt picked her.
“I went to the Humane Society to look for a specific breed – not his,” Alfieri told Salon via email. “Still, he was sitting proudly in the passenger seat next to me on the way home. A twenty-five pound chunk of adorable pug! His tongue bounced out of his mouth. Eyes narrowed as the cool air conditioner hit his face. Look out the window to take in the desert views. More often than not, he looked at me with an unmistakable admiration that I knew was out of place. It was the same look he gave me when he was sitting in his kennel. “
It was the kennel moment when she and the pug had blindfolded each other.
“When he put those eyes on me, my heart melted,” Alfieri explained. “Forget he was an ‘older’ puppy with a few health issues. It was love at first sight for us.” Alfieri added that she and her husband are adopting older dogs “or vintage puppies as we prefer to call them”.
Despite anecdotal experiences like these, scientists haven’t always been so sure that dogs can feel love. The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes infamous vivized dogs because he believed that only humans could have souls. This prompted an eighteenth-century French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire to rejoin about a century later: “Answer me, you think animals are just machines, nature made this animal have all the machinery of feeling just so it doesn’t “have any at all?”
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Since then, the Descartes-Voltaire debate has demonized philosophers. One might think that Descartes, who takes the less idealistic view in this situation, would be proved right by animal behaviorists in later centuries. As it turns out, however, science has landed on Voltaire’s side.
“Dogs get a rush of endorphins and serotonin when they bond with us and play with us, and the same thing happens to us,” said Dr. Linda Simon, Veterinarian and Veterinary Advisor at FiveBarks, emailed Salon. “This strengthening of the relationship is mutually beneficial and creates a strong bond.”
As Simon pointed out, dogs have evolved with humans for thousands of years and formed an alliance with us when we realized that working together could benefit both species – food.
“Dogs are nobody’s fool and they recognized long ago that being ‘man’s best friend’ pays off,” wrote Simon. “In return for leftover meat and shelter, old dogs protected us from predators, guarded our cattle and offered company. This relationship was mutually beneficial and was fortified from the start for success. “
She pointed to an example that scientists have noticed in the human-dog relationship: While most animals avoid eye contact with humans and flee from us when stressed, “our dogs seek our eye contact and ask us what to do, when they are stressed. “Their trust and their love for us and vice versa are anchored in our DNA – and in theirs.
“Several neuro-imaging studies have confirmed that dogs are wired to adjust to us and our voices and emotions,” said Simon. “In fact, an owner’s smell can trigger the ‘reward center’ of the dog’s brain and make them feel happy and well-being.”
A contrarian could respond to all of this by arguing that the above interactions involve self-interest and chemical interactions. To the extent that this is true for dogs, it would also include any living being capable of affection. It would also fail to explain moments of compassion and selflessness in dogs. If “love” is really nothing more than a chemical cocktail, then it applies to humans as well as to dogs.
However, the emotional connection between dogs and humans extends to other emotions as well. A 2019 study found that “long-term” stress levels were “synchronized” between dogs and their owners. The researchers examined the levels of cortisol in the hair follicles of dogs and compared them to those of humans.
“Human personality traits [like] Neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness significantly influenced cortisol levels in dog hair, “the researchers wrote in Scientific Reports.” Hence, we suggest that dogs are highly reflective of their owners’ stress levels.
The hormone oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone”, helps strengthen bonds between people and other people, especially family members. In 2015, Japanese researchers found that oxytocin increases when people and their dogs interact, and especially when they look into each other’s eyes. The same effect was not observed in wolves even when the wolves were reared by humans. This suggests that dogs have evolved specifically to feel connected to us.
In other words, the feeling is mutual.