The feats that dogs undertake for their owners are the stuff of legend. News stories are filled with tales of pups leading rescue workers to injured owners and heroic dogs protecting children from animal attacks, but a question often arises in these remarkable situations: do dogs help because they love us, or because they see us as a meal ticket?
If the experts and studies are to be believed, dogs may actually love people more than food.
“I am completely convinced that our dogs love us. There’s no question in my mind,” Clive Wynne (opens in new tab), a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and the director of the university’s Canine Science Collaboratory, told Live Science.
Of course, it’s one thing to have an opinion about a favorite pet. Proving love — a feat that still dogs humans — is another thing entirely. But studies of varying sophistication, all conducted by inquiring dog owners, appear to back him up.
After the death of his beloved dog, Newton, Gregory Berns (opens in new tab), a neurologist at Emory University in Georgia and author of the books “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain (opens in new tab)” (New Harvest, 2013) and “What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience (opens in new tab),” (Basic Books, 2017), said he became curious about what dogs felt and thought. So, he trained his dog, Callie, and other dogs to tolerate the noise inside the imaging chamber of an MRI and then analyzed their brain activity. He then subjected the dogs to a variety of scents from familiar and unfamiliar dogs and people. While the smell-region of the brain lit up for all 12 dogs regardless of who the person or dog was, only the familiar scents lit up the caudate nucleus, a region tied to higher-level mental processes such as emotion, motivation and reward and romantic feeling, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Behavioural Processes (opens in new tab).
In an additional study of 15 dogs, published in 2016 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (opens in new tab), Berns found that 86% showed a similar or higher level of caudate activation in response to praise than they did from food.
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While it may not have used such sophisticated equipment, Wynne and colleagues also found that dogs may prefer their owners over food when they are left at home without food or human companionship for more than four hours, according to a 2022 study published in Peer J Life and Environment (opens in new tab). Researchers set up the experiment simply enough; in most cases it was in a suburban home with an attached garage. After the dog’s owner arrived home, an assistant placed a bowl of food in a small circle in the garage 6.5 feet (2 meters) and off at an angle from the door while the owner stood in a circle that was 6.5 feet away from the door and off at an opposite angle.
“Eight out of 10 times, the dogs chose their owner,” Wynne said.
Takefumi Kikusui (opens in new tab), a researcher in the School of Veterinary Medicine at Azabu University in Japan and colleagues found that dogs will shed tears when reunited with an owner after a long absence, but will not show the same depth of response to the return of another human the animal recognizes, he reported in a 2022 study published in the journal Current Biology (opens in new tab).
Wynne took the research one step further by seeing how far man’s best friend might be willing to go to show their love. Inspired by stories of dogs digging up their owners after bombing raids in London during World War II, Wynne had the owners of 60 dogs climb into boxes and pretend they were in distress to see if their pets would rescue them. Roughly 1 out of 3 did so, according to a 2020 study published in the journal PLOS One (opens in new tab).
“That might sound superficially disappointing. What about the other two [out of three] dogs? Don’t they care?” Wynne asked. They might, he said, but they couldn’t figure out how to get into the boxes even when they knew their favorite foods had been placed there.
Before people go patting themselves on the back, however, Wynne was quick to point out that the love dogs feel isn’t unique to humans. “Dogs are born with a remarkable capacity to form strong emotional connections with members of any species that they meet during the first three months of life,” he said. So, if a puppy is born on a farm, it could have the same depth of emotion for a sheep, cow or even cat as it might for the farmer.
MRIs and controlled experiments aren’t the only way to determine how a dog feels about its owner, though, Wynne said.
“I tell people, look at the everyday events” like when you come home at the end of the day. “If you have a dog, your dog will be there at the door and your dog will be wagging his tail. You’re allowed to observe that behavior and believe what your dog is telling you. That is your dog expressing strong emotions at reuniting with you.”