It’s an age-old question we’ve been asking ourselves since the day we brought home our first dog. Perhaps it never crossed your mind, because of course your dog loves you–look at the knowing expression on his face, the way he shifts his little “eyebrows” as if to say, “Hey you. Do you know how great you are?” Or that tell-tale wink to which you ALWAYS wink back, just in case it’s some sort of secret code.
But how much of a dog’s personable quirks and behaviors are motivated by, say, food? Or affection? Are Rover’s “kisses” a sign of devotion or is he just sampling the food from the corners of your mouth? Does he run and jump into your lap just to be close to you, or does he know a treat always follows?
In a 60 Minutes special about pups and their brains, Anderson Cooper did a candid “extras” interview in which he too questioned the validity of his pup’s affections for him. A professed dog lover, he found himself asking his Welsh-Springer Spaniel, Molly, “Do you really love me? Or is it a trick? Are dogs the most parasitic pet around?” Well gosh darnit, Cooper, we need to find out.
Humans and dogs have arguably one of the most complicated relationships in the history of the world. We let dogs into our homes, our lives; they are now deeply rooted members of the family. But how much do they feel what we feel? And how much are we anthropomorphizing?
Writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis took a 4-month road trip just to investigate his relationship with his dog and summed up the experience in his book, Travels With Casey. Similarly, Scientist Gregory Burns asked himself the same question, and took his study a step further: he conducted an experiment to see how dogs really feel by scanning their brains in an MRI machine. The results were astonishing, and prompted him to publish his book, How Dogs Love Us:
Proof of social cognition means that dogs aren’t just Pavlovian learning machines. It means that dogs are sentient beings, and this has startling consequences for the dog-human relationship.
Berns advises asking yourself these five questions when it comes to determining if your pup really hearts you as a human:
1. Does your dog cuddle up with you after eating?
If so, this is a strong sign you are NOT just the dispenser of all things delicious.
2. Where does your dog sleep?
Do they like to sleep by you? Cuddle up next to you when there are tons of other comfy spots? If so, your affections towards your dog are likely returned.
3. How does your dog react when you leave?
Just because they whine doesn’t necessarily mean they miss you, per se. Dogs are pack animals, so it could be a simple case of separation anxiety. If a dog, however, calmly lets you depart, it shows trust in the relationship you’ve established. They know you’ll come back. And everyone knows trust is a huge love building-block.
4. How does your dog react when you get home?
If they are happy just at the sight of you, that’s fairly strong proof.
5. Do YOU love your dog?
Duh, right? Love begets love, as the saying goes.
In the end, we may never know if dogs truly love us. Or, we could just stare into their eyes. As Cooper recalled one of the most powerful things he learned from Duke Canine Cognition Center director Brian Hare: “When dogs are looking at you, they’re ‘hugging you with their eyes.'”
What more proof do we need?