Dogs are well-known for their loyalty and love they show to their owners. There are many stories of dogs lying by the side of an owner’s grave or arriving at a meeting place each day to greet a beloved owner after school or work. Dogs are also protective of their homes and seem to want nothing more than to please their owners and spend time with them.
Canine loyalty is partly the result of nature and genetics. Dogs, like their ancestors and closest wild relatives, are social animals. In the wild, wolves live in family units called packs. Wolf packs hunt together, live communally, groom one another, play, show affection, and all pitch in to raise the pups. In many ways, wolves are a lot like people.
Dogs are possibly the oldest domesticated animals. We have been keeping dogs as pets for at least 14,000 years; some scientists believe the domestication began as far back as 135,000 years ago. Either way, dogs have been with us for millennia, and in that time have put them to work doing countless jobs for us: hunting, guarding, emotional support, sport. For their part, dogs seem to relish in being given work to do. Nothing makes a dog happier than a job well done and the praise and treats that accompany it.
The amazing thing about dogs is that they, more than any other animal, are keyed into human body language and communication styles. Dogs can understand human speech with a functional vocabulary similar to a human toddler. They can recognize changes in mood in humans and have learned to engage in eye contact with humans as a form of bonding and nonverbal communication even though they do not use it to communicate with each other. A dog knows how to look at something a human is pointing to and can often intuit what a human expects even in a situation they’ve never encountered before.
How Were Dogs Domesticated?
It’s thought that when humans first began to domesticate dogs from wolves that this domestication was mutually beneficial. Scientists believe that wolves may have begun spending time around primitive humans for access to food, scavenging on the scraps. Humans, in turn, may have allowed this in exchange for protection, companionship or help with hunting.
What is clear is that in the thousands of years that followed, humans began selectively breeding their canine companions for qualities they valued. One of the most attractive qualities in a dog was loyalty and affection. Dogs are trainable and easy-to-please because centuries of selective breeding and growing up alongside humans have made them that way.
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Does My Dog Love Me?
It’s hard to say for certain whether animals experience “love” in quite the same way people do, but what is clear is that dogs form strong bonds with the people in their lives.
On a practical level, your dog relies on you for food, water, and attention. Much like a child, a dog in your care is largely helpless. However, a dog’s bond goes deeper than simply coming to associate you with the sound of kibble being poured into a bowl.
Scientific studies show that oxytocin, a pleasure hormone, works the same way in dog brains as for humans. Oxytocin creates feelings of calm and promotes bonding. It’s sometimes referred to as “the love hormone” because it’s released in humans while doing things like hugging or looking at photos of our children.
Dogs also release oxytocin in response to a pleasurable stimulus. Being petted and talked to causes a dog’s brain to release oxytocin. It’s also been shown that a dog who sniffs his owner’s scent will show activation in the pleasure and reward center of the brain; this same reaction is not seen when sniffing unfamiliar scents. In other words, dogs associate their owners with feel-good chemicals.
Of course, anyone who’s ever had a pet dog shouldn’t be surprised to learn that their dog loves them. Dogs are always happy and excited to see their owners and will prefer spending time near you whenever possible.
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret