The day I adopted my dog Henry was the best day of my life. I rescued him from an animal shelter in Philadelphia and loved him the moment I saw him. And although he eats like a machine, is moodier than a 16-year-old girl, and has cost me a fortune in vet bills, apparel, and furniture, he has brought me so much joy and happiness that I honestly don’t know how I lived without him.
I show Henry love by feeding him, playing with him, picking up his poop, letting him sleep in my bed, petting him, and covering him in blankets when he looks cold. But how does he show me his love? I know I love him, and I think he knows I love him, but does he love me? Science says yes.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper had always wondered if his dog was scamming him. "Do they really love us or do they just know, 'Okay...if I lick their hand, they're gonna give me food.' Or, 'If I wag my tail, and if I look at them a certain way and I cock my head, that seems to work with this person.'" To find out for sure and learn more about dog intelligence, he spoke with dog researcher Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, in a 60 Minutes segment. In the interview, Hare told Cooper that when dogs are looking at you, they’re "hugging you with their eyes" because "oxytocin—same hormone that helps new mothers bond with their babies—is released in both dogs and humans when they play, touch, or look into one another's eyes."
In addition to eye contact, your dog knows your scent and reacts positively to it. According to Dr. Marty Becker, "The area known as the caudate nucleus is rich in dopamine receptors, and in humans, it lights up when we anticipate pleasurable experiences, such as eating Mom’s fried chicken or reuniting with someone we love."
That’s fine and good for humans, but what about dogs? Gregory Berns, neuroscientist and author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, trained dogs to enter an MRI machine willingly and unsedated. Once they were in the MRI machine, Berns scanned their brains while presenting them with odors of various people, and only one type of smell activated the caudate: the scent of someone they knew.
But you don’t have to own an MRI machine to know if you dog loves you. She probably loves you if she...
Sleeps with you. Before I got Henry, I decided that when and if I got a dog, he would not be sharing my bed. Dogs are smelly, dirty, and take up a lot of room – who can deal with that in bed? But when I got Henry, he slept in my bed the first night and every night since then. (One time, he tried to be all big and bad and grown up and attempted to sleep in the living room; I cried and yelled for him and then enticed him with treats back to the bedroom.) Dogs are pack animals and used to cuddling in dens with their families; it’s in their genes! If she’s cuddling you, she’s into you.
Wags her tail to the right. When Henry is not a fan of someone, he has no probably hiding it because unlike humans, dogs don’t care about hurting someone’s feelings. If she’s wagging her tail to the right, she’s happy you’re around. Researchers say dogs have different emotional responses to their peers depending on the direction of the tail-wag and that a wag to the right means they’re happy and relaxed while a wag to the left seems to indicate stress and aggression.
"Right-left tail wags may not be a form of secret dog language...the direction of tail wagging — and other dogs' responses to it — could arise from automatic responses rooted in the different hemispheres of the canine brain." Just like the left and right sides of our brains trigger different emotions and behaviors, it does the same for dogs; the difference is that we communicate with our voices and hands, and they communicate with their tails.
Yawns when you yawn. Yes, yawning is contagious, but according to a study from the University of Tokyo, not only do dogs yawn contagiously, but their yawning doesn’t seem to be a sign of stress, and, like humans, they are more likely to yawn with someone with whom they are emotionally bonded. According to LiveScience, the researchers had dogs watch the yawning of either their owner or a stranger while a heart-rate monitor measured the levels of stress in the dogs. The result? Over half of the dogs (54 percent) yawned contagiously, and they yawned more frequently when their owner yawned, demonstrating that the emotional connection between dogs and their owners is strong.
Licks you. Henry is a big guy. His mouth is monstrous, his tongue is long and slobbery, and he adores giving kisses with his big mouth and tongue. (I love it, but others not so much.) While he does enjoy giving kisses during and after my meals, he also licks me when’s he happy or excited or when I’m feeling blue.
While naysayers like to point out that dogs lick because they like the taste of their owner’s salty skin, with domestic dogs, licking is a sign of affection. Animal Planet says licking releases pleasurable endorphins which gives dogs a feeling of comfort and pleasure. It’s also a stress-reliever for them. So next time you’re friend pushes her off for licking too much, say "She likes you. You’re a free therapy session for her!"
Cuddles you after she eats. Dogs are food-motivated – I know that, you know that, and they know that. Berns — the guy who trained dogs to go into MRI machines — says that, "Dogs, like humans, love food. But unlike humans, dogs do not have a large prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is associated with both planning for the future and inhibiting impulses. It is no surprise, then, that dogs live in the present and love to eat. They don’t know when their next meal is coming. But once their bellies are full, what becomes their next priority? Do they go outside to relieve themselves? Or do they repose at your feet?" If they pick your feet, count that as a win for doggy affection.
Gets excited when you come home. One of the best things about Henry is his reaction when I return home. He jumps on me and licks me and grabs his closest toy like I just cured cancer, even if I was only gone for two minutes taking out the trash. To find out why dogs react that way, a Swedish study was done where the behavior of each dog was recorded and two important hormones - oxytocin and cortisol - were analyzed.
Oxytocin is a social hormone; when it’s released, it promotes attachment between individuals, strengthens bonds and trusts, and decreases anxiety and levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone; it’s released by the body as a quick-fix coping mechanism to help deal with stressful situations, and high levels of it can negatively affect the body by increasing blood pressure and the likelihood of depression.
The outcome of the study showed that the return of a familiar human had a positive effect on the dog - oxytocin levels increased and cortisol levels decreased. If your dog gets excited when you walk through the door, she’s showing she missed you and feels better when you’re safe and close.
Follows you. If you can’t pee in peace, your dog’s a big fan. Yes, she may follow you because you often lead to food, but she also follows you because she trusts you and her brain responds positively to your smell and sound. What’s more, another study done on relationships between dogs in packs found that dogs are less likely to follow the pack leader and more likely to follow the most friendly or most admired dog. You’re like Justin Bieber to her.
Brings you her favorite toy. Dogs’ toys and bones are their prized possessions. Sometimes, they even try to hide or bury them to keep them safe from others. If your pup is bringing hers to you, she’s over the moon for you.
At the end of the day, if you love and treat her well, she will do the same for you! Be good to your pups and enjoy the time you spend with them. Even if you can’t prove your dog loves you with an MRI machine, that doesn’t change the way you make each other feel.
Image: Brendan Bell