It was a whispered comment, a quiet exchange of pleasantries…but they heard my voice anyway. Immediately, squealing, and excited barks echoed throughout the large room. The rock star had arrived. The dogs just couldn’t wait any longer.
When the groomer let them out to the pen, one leaped over her and the other crawled underneath. Too quickly for her to put on their collars and leashes, the cute, fluffy white dogs galloped across the room, howling in excitement. When they reached the gate, they tried to climb over it, or jump over it…anything to get to their rock star.
That improbable rock star was me.
I had left them to be groomed for a full 2 ½ hours and they were desperate to touch me, snuggle with me, kiss me, and go back home to the best place in the world.
I didn’t need to bother with leashes or collars, they weren’t leaving my side.
Despite their opinion, I am not a rock star, pretty ordinary actually. A retired senior citizen just picking up my dogs from the groomers.
But to them, I am the best person in the world. I am amazing. If they are sick, I can heal them. If they are scared, I can reassure them. If they are hurting, I can comfort them. If they are uncertain, I can lead them. If they are hungry, I can feed them. Yes, I am a rock star.
In that moment I wondered, do they love me? Or do they just love that I feed them, pet them, walk them, and clearly adore them?
I certainly love them. But do they love me?
Dogs are a unique species that can connect with a human on the human’s level. But do they love us?
Most scientists believe that they do. The dog-human bond is so strong that newer animal behaviorists recommend using praise instead of treats to reinforce behavior.
Why do scientists think that dogs love us?
The most obvious is their behavior.
- Dogs are happy to see us. Their expressions can range from a simple tail wag to a full throttle welcome, filled with snuggles, barks, whines, and touch.
- Dogs prefer their humans to anything, including food (although some food-oriented dogs do prefer food; full disclosure: one of my dogs would push me in the street for a hotdog, but regret it later).
- Dogs like to physically connect with us and stay close to us as much as they can. Dogs follow us everywhere; they want to be with us. When they sleep with us, they remain alert, to protect us from possible danger.
- Dogs love to gaze at us.
- They look to us for comfort, affection, protection, security, and assurance. In fact, dogs rely on humans more than they do other dogs.
There are also clinical indicators that dogs love us.
There is chemical evidence. Dog-human eye contact produces oxytocin. It is called the “Oxytocin-gaze positive loop.” Oxytocin is a hormone that works as a neurotransmitter in the brain to produce a feeling of “love” or “euphoria.” A 2015 study in Japan demonstrated that Oxytocin is released when humans and dogs gaze at each other.
There is MRI imagery. In 2014, Emory University researchers using an fMRI scan, found that the section of dogs’ brains associated with positive expectations reacted most strongly to the scent of their specific humans. A similar study in Budapest, Hungary, demonstrated similar results with the voice of their human.
Other findings suggest dogs can interpret the emotion in our voices, dogs can read our emotions. My dogs are really skilled at appearing apologetic when they make a mistake.
So, I choose to believe that my dogs love me almost as much as I love them. And I guess that I am a rock star after all. I just have a very small fan base.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.