This week at The Woof Club we have launched our Valentine’s Box and so we thought that it was the ideal time to explore the theme of “love” and to reflect on the question of whether dog’s can and do feel love.
So, what is the definition of “love”? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as; “an intense feeling of deep affection”.
We dog owners feel enormous love for our dogs, in fact an ever-increasing number of surveys suggest that many dog owners actually;
- have a more fulfilling relationship with their dog than with a partner
- get a better night’s sleep when they share a bed with their dog than with a partner.
- believe that their dog makes a better best friend than a human.
This suggests that we feel that our dog’s love us too.
So are dogs really capable of feeling emotions or are we just projecting our own love onto our dogs?
It’s a popular cliché that dogs show us both devotion and loyalty, and it’s this that leads us to assume that our dog loves us. We don’t only assume that our dogs love US. Talk to any dog owner and it won’t take long before you hear stories of a love bond between two dogs who spend their time cuddling, playing and looking out for each other and who, when separated even for a long time, are visibly overjoyed when reunited.
Its normal for us to assign our human emotions to our dogs. That’s no surprise. We see a tail wag and we say our dog is happy, we see him cower and we say he is afraid. We even go further, and when he looks at us with large soulful eyes and a solemn expression whilst we are eating our food, we are quick to say
“ oh poor dog, he’s hungry”
rather than realising that many years of evolution have resulted in a domesticated dog with a genetically programmed ability to read humans and to adapt it’s behaviour to get what it wants!
– he is not starving he’s manipulating you!
It’s not always been like this, however. In the 17th century, once we humans began to understand physics and mechanics, we learned how to make complex machines and quickly saw how similar the functionality of a living being was to that of a machine. At this point, religion stepped in and stated that humans were much more than just machines based on the fact that, in their opinion, they had a soul. The evidence for having a soul was our ability to show emotions and to have feelings.They did not accept that any other animal had a soul so therefore they were not capable of showing any emotions or having feelings. As many early scholars were religious, it led to philosophers like Descartes stating that animals like dogs were nothing more than a type of machine.
Nowadays of course we no longer believe this extreme view, In fact science has now proved that;
- we share the same parts of the brain with dogs that produce emotions
- dogs have the same hormones as those involved in our physical responses to an attraction
- dogs show the same chemical changes in their hormones as we do when they are in an emotional state.
Have you ever noticed that in the early stages of love you sweat more or the sky actually seems to be bluer than you remembered before?
Its actually caused by clearly measurable chemical changes in levels of the “feel good” hormone dopamine that is released by the brain and adrenal glands when we focus our affections on that special person. The same chemical changes can be observed in dogs.
They even have the hormone oxytocin, which in humans is involved with the feeling of love and affection for others. It has been shown to be released and controlled in dogs, under the same emotional stimuli as in humans.
It doesn’t seem impossible then to assume that dogs might have emotions that are similar to our own, that they also do feel love and fall in love.
But as we hoomans know very well, no two people experience the feeling of love in the same way and so it is true to say that, although dogs probably do feel love for both us and for other animals, it is not necessarily in the same way that we do .
Anyone who has rescued an abused dog knows that it will often take time for them to get close to another human again but equally we see that abused dogs hold no grudges and a little kindness will be rewarded quickly with a wag of the tail. Humans rarely have this capacity to forgive.
Dogs actually appear to fall in love much more easily than people do, and they also seem, on the face of it, to be able to move on much more easily than people can. We do however know that dogs also experience the pain, ( at least in the chemical sense) from the loss of a loving relationship, as we do too.
So at the Woof Club we think that it is pretty clear that dogs can and do feel love for us and for other animals, but that a distinguishing factor between us and them is the unconditional nature of this love and their immense capacity for forgiveness.
Humans can ignore or be grumpy towards their dog, but once they are ready to be social again, the dog doesn’t sulk or bear a grudge, he is right back at their side ready to continue to show how much he loves you!
For dogs it seems, love is truly blind. They don’t care what we look like, where we live, whether we are good or bad or what age we are.
What s more, the love between owner and dog will last a lifetime which, apart from perhaps the love between a parent and a child, is pretty rare amongst humans –
in fact this is what we all aspire to and practically never achieve. Something to think about as we approach St Valentine’s day.