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We know that we love our dogs. Mine are as much real members of the family as my wife and children and my little granddaughter, Reagan. But do they love us back?
I think so, and I think they show us that love in ways that are distinctly individual to each dog and person. Gracie, my female Lab/Pit mix, makes a throaty woof when she wants me to find treats. Quora, our 11-year-old PomPeiCarrier (Pomeranian, Shar-Pei, Cairn Terrier cocktail), does a little tap dance on the floor, which means she’s happy and ready for loving or playing. And Quixote, our 12-year-old Porkhuahua (Pomeranian, Yorkie, Chihuahua blend), likes to find my wife, Teresa, and bump her with his nose to let her know he’s keeping tabs on her.
Recently, scientists have begun to explore more deeply the question of which emotions animals feel and how they display them. What they’ve found bolsters my belief even further.
Here are some of the ways, through body language, brain response and the choices they make, that I think our dogs show us love.
They are willing to make eye contact with us. In the world of dogs, making eye contact can be an aggressive act. Polite dogs, who just want to get along, avoid the long, hard stare that can intimidate or challenge other dogs. They don’t stare at people that way either, but they accept our looks of love and will even seek out eye contact from us. When our dogs are happy and comfortable with us, they give us that special gaze that says, “All is right with the world.” Their eyes are relaxed and normal size, showing little of the white. To build a closer relationship with your dog, you can teach him to look at you for guidance.
They react happily to the sound of our voice. Don’t you love it when you come home and call your dog, and he comes bounding joyfully to you? It’s even more special when he leaves a fascinating scent or favorite toy (or brings it to you) to come and greet you. I think it’s one of the best feelings in the world, even if sometimes it’s just cupboard love.
They know our scent. Did you know that your scent triggers activity in the reward center of your dog’s brain? 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. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when he trained dogs to enter an MRI machine willingly and unsedated and then scanned their brains while presenting them with the odors of different people, only one type of smell activated the caudate: that of someone they knew. In his book, How Dogs Love Us, he writes: “Could it be longing? Or love? It seemed entirely possible. These patterns of brain activation looked strikingly similar to those observed when humans are shown pictures of people they love.”
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