“Dogs are minor angels, and I don’t mean that facetiously. They love unconditionally, forgive immediately, are the truest of friends, willing to do anything that makes us happy.” – Jonathan Carroll
When you look into the eyes of a golden retriever, what do you see? In those large and innocent brown eyes, I see hopefulness, playfulness, and of course love. But perhaps the particular eyes you see reflecting love back to you are different. They may belong to a pug, a spaniel or perhaps a terrier named Corky. No matter what breed the dog, whether bounding retriever or playful poodle, I know one thing for sure—every dog expresses, or is capable of expressing, unconditional love.
Still, there are many who are simply not in agreement with me. Where I see love, most scientists would say that I see a figment of my imagination. Quick to accuse folks like me of anthropomorphizing animals, most scientists posit that it is only we humans who are capable of love. Just as quickly, they dismiss the canine-human bond as an adaptive strategy solely for the acquisition of food.
Happily, the results of a recent study provide us with some hopeful clues as to what dogs might be thinking. Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, a distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, has been able to shed light on what goes on within the canine mind. Despite his multiple degrees and scientific training, his lifelong dream had always been to answer one simple question—do dogs love us?
With grants from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Berns received the funding to explore this question. Remarkably, he has been able to see for the first time what goes on in the mind of dogs by using fMRI technology. He and his staff have trained a group of canines to willingly sit inside an fMRI so that changes in the canine brain and thought patterns may be seen and measured.
Since dogs “see” the world through scent, changes in each canine’s cognition and emotions have been measured via the use of scent. Each dog has been presented with objects that contain the scent of their owners and also the scent of strangers. When presented with the scent of their owners, the reward center in the canine’s brain was triggered. It was found without a doubt that the dogs in the study loved their owner’s scent above any other scent. More information on these findings can be discovered in Berns’ book How Dogs Love Us.
It has also been demonstrated by other experiments that dogs are able to understand the difference between happy, distressed and sad humans. Dogs are able to comprehend an owner’s speech and pitch and respond to them in a way that seems to demonstrate empathy.
Love is a two-way street
Biologists, psychologists and many physicians have known for years that humans benefit from interaction with their pets. Forward-thinking hospitals utilize dogs on cardiac wards because their presence is linked to higher survival rates in patients. This is great news for humans, but how do dogs feel about us?
Fortunately, it appears that the benefits in terms of feelings of well-being go both ways. A study in Sweden recently demonstrated that dogs seem to benefit emotionally as much as we humans from our relationship with them. During the study, the hormonal levels of dogs and human volunteers were measured.
When volunteers petted and interacted with the dogs in the study, both the dogs and the humans released copious amounts of oxytocin. This hormone that invokes feelings of wellbeing and bonding is also released when human loved ones hug or participate in other loving activities.
How far will a dog’s love go?
If you scan the news, you can occasionally find a good news story about a dog saving the life of an owner. For example, in 2008 a dog named Maya was awarded the Dog of the Year award for saving her owner from a male attacker who sought to take the life of Maya’s owner.
However, there are even more dramatic stories than these. Cecil Williams, a 61-year-old blind man from New York City, got to experience firsthand how far a dog’s love will go. When he found himself in a life and death situation with only seconds to spare, his dog Orlando was put to the ultimate test.
Williams, who is a diabetic, was on his way to a dental appointment when he lost consciousness and fell onto the subway tracks in Harlem. His dog Orlando followed him onto the tracks without question. Onlookers alerted the conductor to stop the subway as they yelled to an unconscious Cecil.
But as the train bore over Cecil and Orlando, everyone turned away, shrieking in horror. To everyone’s surprise and after the train passed over the pair, witnesses found that Orlando was next to his master in the middle of the track. Somehow, they were positioned so that the subway had passed over both of them and master and dog remained completely unharmed.
This type of canine loyalty is far from being a recent occurrence. Let’s take for example the legendary loyalty of a Japanese dog named Hachiko. Each day, Hachiko would accompany his master to the Shibuya train station and wait for his master to come back from his work at the University of Tokyo.
This daily act of loyalty occurred for years, even after his master died. Up until the day Hachiko died, he could be found waiting for his master in the same spot. Today a statue stands in his place to commemorate this act of loyalty that transcends both time and culture.
Martin Luther once noted, “The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.” This Valentine’s Day, let’s endeavor to create a love that is more inclusive and recognize that the affection that all of us seek may already be lying near a warm fire and right beside our feet.