We don’t know for sure, but here’s what science says.

By Austin Cannon
December 07, 2020
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We’d all like to think our dogs love us. We give them our unconditional love, food, and snuggles, but it’s not like we can sit them down and really ask them: Do dogs really love us? Or are we just mobile treat and food dispensers they tolerate?

We humans do perceive certain dog behaviors as loving—tail-wagging, cuddling—but actual scientists using fMRI machines have detected a real bond between dogs and their human companions. 

So worry not, dog owners. You probably aren’t in a one-sided relationship. 

“They really do get something out of their relationship with us that starts to look a lot like love,” says Leslie Sinn, DVM, ACVB, and a member of the Daily Paws Advisory Board.  

Does My Dog Love Me?

How dogs love us is a matter of perception, Sinn says. They look at our faces and make eye contact. They wag their tails or wiggle their butts as we walk in the door and present us with toys to play with. They want to sleep next to us.  

And unlike other animals, they seek us out for comfort and safety. They follow us around and some get upset when we leave, even potentially leading to separation anxiety

But those are things we perceive as love, Sinn says. We just don’t know for sure. But we do have science helping us better understand.

Credit: Cavan Images / Getty

In 2014, Emory University researchers employed an fMRI scan and found that the section of dogs’ brains—the caudate nucleus—associated with positive expectations reacted most strongly to the scent of their familiar humans. (The scents were collected from the humans’ sans-deodorant armpits, so dogs really must love us.) 

A similar study from scientists in Budapest, Hungary, offered similar results, but it instead focused on sound. Their findings suggest dogs can interpret the emotion in our voices—meaning they might be able to discern the happy voice we use as we talk to them, Sinn says. 

“We can’t interview them, we can’t put them on a couch and analyze rhythm, but these studies suggest we’re quite important to them,” she adds.

There are other signs from outside the brain. Japanese researchers found higher levels of oxytocin—the so-called “love hormone”—in dogs and their owners after they spent time looking into each other’s eyes. The findings suggest we have a bond with our dogs the same way mothers and infants have.

Plus, psychologist Clive Wynne, founder of the Canine Science Collaboratory, told The Washington Post that he and his collaborators trained dogs to open a box that had food in it. Once the dogs could open the box, the researchers replaced the food with the dogs’ owners, who cried out in distress.

“Under those conditions, pretty much every dog opened the box,” Wynee told the newspaper. “That, to me, is a compelling demonstration that dogs really do care if they can understand. If they can figure out what to do, they will.”

Why Dogs (Probably) Love Us

Well, we’ve spent a few thousand years perfecting the human-dog bond, so it’s natural that we’ve developed some affection for each other, Sinn says. Plus, they’ve become more reliant on us—for food, shelter, and comfort—as we’ve taken over what used to be their ancestral homes. 

And there’s no question we love them—this website wouldn’t exist if that weren’t true—so maybe they’ve started to love us back unconditionally. 

“It’s a two-way street,” Sinn says.  

Show Your Dog You Love Them Back

Whether your dog loves you or not—even though we think they do—you should still treat them to the best life possible, giving them everything they need to be happy. 

That means making sure they get enough exercise, eat the right food, and receive the best medical care. Treat them as your partner or child, Sinn says. Play with them and teach them cues and tricks

Get them toys to play with when you’re not around. Treat them consistently so they know what to expect from you.  

“Explore with your dog, and try and find out what their preferences are,” Sinn says.