We love our dogs. There’s no question of that. They share our homes, our couches, and sometimes our beds. Some people buy their dogs health insurance, wheel them around in carriages, and pamper them with visits to luxury doggie daycare. For the average dog owner, there’s no lack of love directed toward the lower end of the leash.
But do they love us back?
“Dogs definitely feel love,” says Sonia Charry, a large-dog expert at PawPosse.com in Scottsdale, Ariz. “A dog’s sense of love is not as nuanced or complex as that of a human adult’s, but neither is a 2-year-old child’s. That doesn’t mean the love a 2-year-old child feels isn’t actual love. It’s just that they haven’t had the experience or knowledge to understand love as a complex emotion. The same goes for dogs.”
Many dog owners believe that their dogs not only feel love, but also that canine love may equal, if not surpass, human love. It’s hard to argue with a waggy tail and an exuberant welcome at the front door, even if you’ve only been gone long enough to take out the trash. But is love a biological imperative? Do wild dogs need love to survive, or is love a byproduct of survival, part of the glue that maintains the integrity of the pack? Do dogs love their leaders?”There is certainly nothing wrong in believing that your dog loves you as you love her, but the behaviors of ‘love’ within a pack of dogs or wolves is more a behavior that we would call ‘respect,’” says Bonnie Beaver, D.V.M., of College Station, Texas executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “Respect for each other, especially by social rank, would help in the survival of the pack as a whole.”
Do dogs love humans?
There’s no shortage of online videos showing dogs welcoming back soldiers from overseas, raising kittens and squirrel babies, or refusing to leave the bodies of fallen companions — all behaviors we may attribute to love. But is this simply about humans wanting to see dogs as behaving like us, a case of anthropomorphism? Maybe not. Perhaps they just love differently — and in some cases, better.
“Dogs love unconditionally, and that’s the biggest difference,” says Terri Jay, a pet psychic from Reno, Nev. “They don’t care how we treat them, how we look or smell, or how rich or poor we are. I think THAT love is love.”
Without being able to ask dogs whether or not they love us, we only have anecdotal evidence. For example, service and therapy dogs are renowned for aiding those needing comfort, and most dog owners can recall a time or two — or 10 — when their dogs keyed into their emotions and helped soothe a bad moment.
“I was once having a hard day and just needed a break, so I went for a walk in the woods, and before my boyfriend could stop them, our dogs came after me at full speed,” says Kimberly Gauthier, a blogger at Keep the Tail Wagging in Marysville, Wash. “They caught up to me crying in the woods, sitting there, head in my hands, having a pity party. I felt three warm bodies lean into me, and the youngest licked me a few times. Then all three did. In that moment, whatever was bothering me seemed silly, and I just sat there with them for a while enjoying the moment.”
Some scientists would say that dogs only do “what works for them” to maintain their survival — in other words, Gauthier’s dogs may have been simply bolstering their leader, because if their leader waivered, the pack would suffer. But isn’t this a form of love? Does all love have to be the same in order to be authentic?
There are camps of people who believe that male dogs are more loving, or that some breeds or mixes are more affectionate. But these are at most tendencies, and most dog owners know of cases that can disprove any of these anecdotes. Where there’s a dog, there’s an individual, and where there’s an individual, there’s the possibility for an exception to any rule.
One “rule” that seems to have legs, based on widespread testimonials, is that shelter dogs or dogs that have been homeless or abused may be more grateful and loving than those who have had comfy lives.
“It seems anthropomorphic to say that animals who’ve been in bad situations are more grateful, but they are often the most loving and loyal companions,” Charry says. “Rescued or shelter animals have a different breadth of experience than dogs who have only been in safe, secure environments. As a result, they have a different perspective on bonds. The difference in emotion between rescue and nonrescue dogs is not unlike the difference between a person’s first teenage love and the later love that leads them to marriage. Experience changes the scope of emotion.”
Do dogs love other animals?
Almost anyone who lives with two or more dogs that have bonded to each other will attest that they love one another. Dogs can even become bonded with animals of other species, showing great affection. Do a Google search for Bella the dog and Tarra the elephant to find a video of a loving relationship that can bring even the most stolid person to tears.
“Nonhuman animals behave in ways that show compassion and concern, and yes, love, for members of other species,” says psychologist Pia Salk, spokeswoman for Adopt-a-Pet.com in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. “Dogs seem to naturally possess the propensity to be present in the moment and are intrinsically honest in their displays of emotion. How we interpret these displays is often clouded by our own needs and experiences, but dogs are unencumbered by concerns about self-image, previous notions of failure, or any attachment to perceived shortcomings. In this way, they demonstrate a much healthier notion of love and acceptance than do most humans.”
So, dogs may in fact love better than we do by virtue of being free of a clunky value system. They are open to love whom they want, when they want — even if the object of their love is an elephant.
Val DeSantis of K-9 Psychologist Dog Training in Pueblo West, Colo., tells a story that’s typical of his two dogs.
“Last week I took my Dachshund, Fritz, to the veterinarian to have his teeth cleaned, and when I returned home without him, my German Shepherd, Heidi, went from room to room looking for him and was very upset,” DeSantis says. “She wouldn’t leave me alone the whole day. When I later returned home with Fritz, the two of them rejoiced.”
Whether you are a veterinary behaviorist, psychic, psychologist, or everyday dog owner, everyone can agree that what seems like “dog love” to us is a big part of the reason why we keep dogs in our lives. Whether they can love us or not isn’t the point — it’s that we get to love them, and that’s the real privilege.