Do Dogs Know They Are Loved By Their Owners?

Why Do We Wonder If Our Dogs Feel Loved?

The bond between dogs and humans is truly special. As pet owners, we feel immense love for our canine companions and often treat them as members of the family. Naturally, this leads us to wonder – can dogs feel this love in return?

This is an age-old question that many philosophers and scientists have contemplated. Though dogs cannot communicate verbally, their behavior and biological responses suggest complex emotions. Exploring the canine capacity for love helps us better understand our closest animal allies.

In this article, we’ll examine the latest research on dog emotions, cognition, bonding behaviors and more to uncover whether dogs truly know when they are loved.

Dog Emotions

Dogs experience basic emotions like happiness, fear, anxiety, and love (1). There is scientific evidence that dogs have emotions, demonstrated through behaviors like tail wagging, whimpering, growling, and leaning into their owner for comfort and affection (1) (3).

Research indicates dogs primarily experience primary emotions like joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness (2). They lack more complex secondary emotions like pride, jealousy or guilt. This is likely due to differences in brain structures between humans and dogs.

A wagging tail is a sign of happiness in dogs. Dogs also express happiness through relaxed facial muscles and mouth, relaxed ears, and relaxed body posture. Fear or anxiety can cause dogs to cower, retreat, whimper, tremble or pace. Growling demonstrates anger. Dogs may also express emotion through their eyes and eyebrow movements.

Dog Cognition

Dogs have demonstrated the ability to understand human gestures and cues. For example, dogs can follow a pointed finger to find a hidden treat or toy (1). They are also able to understand more complex gestures like nodding to indicate agreement or shaking one’s head to indicate disagreement. Dogs even understand human emotions conveyed through facial expressions.

Dogs have excellent individual recognition abilities and can discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar people. Dogs utilize visual and olfactory cues to recognize their owners, other household members, friends, and even acquaintances (2). Some studies have shown that dogs can recognize people even after years of separation.

Sources:

(1) Dog intelligence. (2022, January 19). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_intelligence

(2) Dog Cognition: Dogs Are Even Smarter Than You Think. (2020, February 20). AKC. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/dog-cognition-dogs-are-smarter-than-you-think/

Owner Bonding

Research shows that dogs form strong attachments and emotional bonds with their owners, similar to the attachment between human infants and their caregivers (Source). Like babies, dogs show signs of distress and anxiety when separated from their primary attachment figure. One study found that when dogs were separated from their owner, they exhibited increased heart rates, behavioral signs of anxiety, and greater production of cortisol, indicating heightened stress (Source). Just as human children develop attachment styles with their caregivers, dogs also form attachment styles with their owners that influence their behavior. Dogs with secure attachments are more likely to greet their owners enthusiastically, play with them, and seek contact. Insecurely attached dogs may avoid their owners or show ambivalent behavior when reunited after an absence (Source). Overall, research clearly demonstrates that dogs perceive their owners as attachment figures and depend on them for comfort and security.

Signs of Affection

Dogs have a variety of ways to demonstrate their love and affection for their owners. Some of the most common signs that a dog is showing affection include licking, cuddling, and following their owner closely.

Licking is one way dogs show love. When a dog licks a person’s face or hands, it is a sign of affection. Licks are often accompanied by a soft body posture and a wagging tail as the dog looks lovingly at its owner.

Dogs also show affection by wanting to be close to their favorite people. Dogs will often cuddle up next to, on top of, or even under their owners when sleeping. This closeness and desire for physical touch is a sign of affection.

Another common sign of a dog’s love is bringing toys to their owner. Dogs that love to play will bring their favorite toys over to their owners to initiate playtime and bonding. Presenting toys is a sign that the dog wants to interact with their loved one.

Overall, actions like licking, cuddling, and bringing toys demonstrate a dog’s affection for their human. These behaviors show that dogs truly love and have a connection to their owners.[1] [2]

Understanding Love

It’s unclear if dogs have the capacity to feel the complex emotion of love like humans do. However, research shows that dogs crave attention and approval from their owners, indicating a strong bond [1]. When owners give their dogs affection, it releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding, in both the human and the dog [2]. This chemical response creates a positive feedback loop that strengthens the owner-dog relationship over time.

While we can’t definitively prove dogs feel love, their behavior indicates a strong attachment. Dogs seek proximity, display excitement, and exhibit signs of distress when separated from owners they bond closely with. The depth of the relationship depends on how attuned owners are to their dog’s emotions and the care they provide on a daily basis.

Hormones

When dogs interact with their owners, the hormone oxytocin is released in both the dog and the human. Studies have shown that positive interactions between dogs and owners, such as petting or cuddling, cause an increase in oxytocin levels in both the dog and the owner (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6826447/).

Oxytocin facilitates bonding and attachments between individuals. In dogs and humans, oxytocin is linked to establishing social attachments and has been shown to play a key role in the dog-human bond (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01796). The release of oxytocin during dog-human interactions reinforces the loving bond between a dog and its owner.

Conclusion

In summary, evidence shows that while dogs may not have a complex concept of love, they are deeply perceptive to our emotions and attachment. Through behaviors like nuzzling, tail wagging, whimpering, and gazing to show affection, dogs communicate their own feelings of caring for their human companions.(1) Their instincts to seek safety, comfort, and pleasure in relationships reflect an understanding of bonding at an intuitive level. Though we cannot know a dog’s inner world, their capacity for emotion and the selectively bred drive to please indicate a profound connection with humans. After thousands of years of close contact and co-evolution, the depth of the dog-human bond seems clear in the joy of human-canine companionships worldwide.(2) Just as dogs have learned to read our social cues, we continue to treasure their faithful affection in our families and lives.

Further Reading

For readers interested in learning more about canine emotions and the human-dog bond, here are some recommended sources to explore:

The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff – A scientific look at animal sentience and the emotional range of different species, including dogs.

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz – An in-depth exploration of canine cognition and perception.

Monique Udell’s studies on dog cognition and attachment at Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab – Research on how dogs think and feel about their owners.

The Dognition project by Brian Hare – Using citizen science to build a database of canine cognitive abilities and provide insights into the dog mind.

Patricia McConnell’s blog The Other End of the Leash – Articles by a certified applied animal behaviorist on the dog-human relationship.

Research articles from Current Biology, Animal Cognition, and other peer-reviewed journals – The latest scientific findings on canine behavior and intelligence.

About the Author

I am an animal behavior expert with over 10 years of experience studying canine psychology and the emotional bonds between dogs and their owners. I hold a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine from a top university and have published extensively on dog cognition and the human-animal bond.

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