Does Your Dog Love You As Much As You Love Your Dog?

Pam and Honey the golden retriever.

The hair color changes but not the love.

You can’t imagine life without your dog. Just the thought of her makes you smile. You buy her gifts, celebrate her birthday, and can’t stop hugging and kissing her.

But does your dog love you as much as you love her?

I Like My Dog, Does My Dog Like Me?

Researchers in Sweden did experiments to see if dogs returned the obvious affection their people had for them.

They did find that dogs whose people played with them were more excited to see their people again after an absence. But they also found that the dogs in the study stayed close to their people instead of exploring or playing.

The researchers concluded that the human’s presence did not make the dogs feel secure. If it had, they would have gone off exploring on their own secure in the knowledge that their humans were there to support them if needed. Much like the secure and happy toddlers studied in the same research facility.

And there’s the big problem with the study.

Man sleeping in chair with Golden Retriever on his lap

Aren’t you glad you had a dog instead of a kid? I’ll never outgrow naps.

Dogs Are Not Children

Repeat after me, “Dogs are not children. Dogs are not children.”

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have similar nurturing feelings toward dogs that we have toward children. Or that dogs don’t depend on us for care and training the way children do. Or even that referring to ourselves as pet parents is a bad thing.

Dogs have many similar traits to young children. Even Alexandra Horowitz said so when she asked, Is Your Dog Smarter Than a Two Year Old?

But when we do research involving dogs, we can’t use the same methods we use with children and expect to get accurate results. And we can’t judge a dog’s attachment or affection for us by the standards we use to judge a child’s.

Honey the Golden Retriever takes the lead at the dog park.

If you want to do experiments on me, let’s do them at the dog park.

The Wrong Way To Study Dogs

Writer Richard Conniff described how the researchers conducted the study:

…the researchers employed Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Procedure, originally developed to measure the degree of attachment between human toddlers and their parents. The test procedures generally involved putting a dog alone in an unfamiliar room, then reuniting him with his owner, or introducing him to a stranger, and seeing how these different situations changed the dog’s behavior. [emphases mine]

Did you pick up on the big mistake the researchers made?

They conducted the test in an unfamiliar room.

Think about it. Babies and toddlers go everywhere with their parents—stores, restaurants, churches, other homes. So a child would be less started in an unfamiliar room than a dog would.

Except for service dogs, most dogs go for walks, to the vet, maybe to visit a friend. Most dogs do not go to strange rooms with their people on a regular basis. So this is already weirder for the dog than it would be for a human child.

The second problem came when the researchers interpreted the dog’s behavior when their person returned to the room. They found that dogs continued to cling to their people instead of exploring the way a secure child would. To the researchers, it appeared the dogs were not securely attached to their people enough to feel safe exploring.

There are two problems with this conclusion:

1.  An unfamiliar room is a terrible place to test a dog’s confidence to explore while thinking of their person as a secure base. How about trying the same experiment in a dog park?

I have no doubt Honey would stay right by my side in a weird white room. But at the dog park? She’s happy to run off to play while occasionally checking in to make sure I’m still around.

2.  And who says proper attachment for a child is the same as a proper level of attachment for a dog?

Humans evolved to raise their young for a very long time before sending them off into the world to raise their own families. Dogs evolved to work cooperatively with humans for life.

So where does this leave us? How can we know whether our dogs love us as much as we love our dogs?

Honey the golden retriever in the car.

If you really loved me, you’d buy me a car. I love going for rides.

How To Be Sure Your Dog Loves You

I believe with all my heart that our dogs love us when we love them the way they want to be loved.

What does that mean? Dogs want us to be an unending fountain of good things:

  • food
  • fun
  • games
  • security
  • learning
  • adventures
  • exercise

If we spend at least 2/3 of our time trying to give our dogs what makes them happy, I think they reward us with whatever dogs consider love. And if we occasionally do things that are just for us that don’t cause any real harm to our dogs (for me, it’s kissing Honey’s ears; for someone else it might be painting your dog’s toenails), I don’t think they’ll hold it against us.

I can’t be sure of that. I don’t have an MRI machine to tell me what part of Honey’s brain lights up when I come into the room. Or a fancy lab where I can conduct experiments.

But Honey looks happy to see me when I come home. She’s excited when I take her to her favorite places. And she dances with joy when I start training.

Is it just hormones and the brain that’s causing these responses? Maybe. But if so, it’s also true for me.

So if you ask me does my dog love me as much as I love my dog, I’d say yes. But I love Honey the way a human loves someone and she loves me the way a dog loves someone. And that’s just fine with me.

Celebrating My 1000th Post

I always tell myself that a birthday or anniversary is no more special because it ends with a 0. But there’s something thrilling about that zero.

Today, the blogometer turned over to 1000. This is the 1000th post I’ve published at Something Wagging.

Thank you, friends, for inspiring me to write (this post was inspired by my Facebook friends) and for giving me someone to write to. I don’t know if I have another 1000 posts in me. Or even another 1000 words. But I hope you’ll hang around and chat back as long as we keep going.

Your Turn: What are the signs that your dog loves you? 

 

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Comments

  1. I need to point something out. Your title should give you your answer. Something “wagging.” Gauge the love of Honey by how much she wags her tail. I know my puppy Isabella wags her tail like crazy when I get home from where ever I’ve been. Buddy demands a kiss. I’d like to think they’re happy to see me and expect their “hello, I’m home honey” from me just as much as a pseudo husband would from me. Their tails tell me that. If they don’t get it, they get offended.

  2. Congratulations on 1000! I don’t think I have a count on mine, but maybe half of that at most. Keep on blogging! As for dog love, Mom asks us all the time if we love her as much as she loves us. We do, she thinks we do, and that is what really matters. That Bailie and I “ask” her for hugs every day and when she wants to move away we hug tighter on her shoulders with our paws is proof enough for her.

  3. Congrats! That’s a whole heck of a lot of posts! We just passed our 200 blog post, so we have a long way to go! :)

  4. That study seems weird to me. I don’t really think that whether or not a dog would explore indicates attachment. For instance – Jeni, who is obsessed with me to an almost unhealthy level, HAS to explore when she gets somewhere new in order to feel secure, and that’s fair. Once she’s done a quick lap of a room she’ll come back and hang out with me. But if my husband (who she is not attached to), were to take her to a strange place, she would leave him and probably try to figure out how to get out of the room. Bauer, who is the most independent on our dogs, would probably stay near us because he’s not too inclined to explore, he wants to watch. Snoopy, who is very attached to his people, would totally ignore both of us and explore because he has a hound brain lol.

    I do a lot of work with shelter dogs and bringing them from their kennel to a new room to start training, they always explore. Does that mean they are feeling secure or attached to me? Doesn’t make sense at all honestly.

  5. 1000 posts – wow! I love kissing Ruby’s ears, too. She is happy to leave me behind at the baseball field, but does come back often to engage me in play.

  6. LOL! The very next time I post (tomorrow, hint, hint) will be my 1000th post as well!

    Congrats on the milestone!

  7. Congrats on the big 1000! I’m not too far behind you!

    As for your post, I do have some concerns about the way the study was conducted. When I take Rumpy to the vet, they take him alone to a room to draw blood. And you know what? He acts so much better than he does when I’m in the room. I’ve always suspected he was picking up on my nervousness. I wonder if that could account for the findings, or was that allowed for?

  8. Sometimes (often) I think researchers come up with conclusions that will just irritate people and get their names in the paper.

  9. Wahoo! Congrats on hitting 1000! What a milestone and accomplishment! I’m sitting at the airport with super slow internet, but I bookmarked that study to come back to later. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Huh, interesting. It seems this study contradicts one I just read about (and which I bookmarked cuz it fits with the book i’m working on at the moment). I read about it here: http://www.care2.com/causes/dogs-and-babies-have-more-in-common-than-we-think.html#ixzz2YHMxYjyh It was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, and the research seemed to indicate that the dogs DID feel more secure in the presence of their owners. They wanted to study the “secure base effect” which lets kids go explore while their parents are there, because they have a secure base to check in with. They found dogs also used their owners as a secure base, and that there were similarities in human-child and human-dog relationships.

    Congrats on 1000! That’s a lotta posts!

  11. Congrats on your 1000th post, that’s amazing!

  12. Ok, here’s one thing that is never in dispute: it would be hard to not know what it feels like if a dog does NOT love you. Think of it that way.

    Love is not just the give and take of caring for and appreciating what each species does for the other. Not all dogs fall in love with all people. I think that just as with people, there are some people and some dogs that just click…that really feel something more than the norm. It goes beyond neediness, and in fact you’ll not easily see it if it exists, if your dogs are not appreciated for who and what they are, but are thought of as equating human children. Knowing your dog as a dog, as he knows you only as a human, creates a special relationship, and when it is acknowledged, and respected and honored, it clears the way for a real inter-species love., that goes beyond the care rewards.

    Of my six Dachshunds, ages ten thru 15, I can honestly say that Fritz respects me, but was messed up as a puppy sold too young….Franny sees me as a worthy challenge to her do I acne issues…Mokie is besotted with me but not in love…Mercedes is too in sure to love anyone! and Phoebe has too many old dogs to love to be sure what her relationship should be with the humans. But it could happen as she gets old, since she’s really sensitive and intelligent. That leaves Izzy…and Izzy, I know without a doubt, loves me more than anything in this world. And I love him. I love all my dogs, but I recognize something special, a returned, comparabl love, in Izzy.

  13. Ok, autocorrect did a number on that sentence…I mean, Franny sees me as a worthy challenge to her dominance issues. Where the hellACNE ISSUES comes from I have no idea lol!

  14. I had another thought about the study. Where it says people who play often with their dogs got more excitable reactions – I wonder if that could be a result of that person reinforcing more excitable behaviour in the dog over a long period of time – then the dog learns what kind of behaviour that particular person is expecting of them and acts accordingly to get the appropriate response (greeting, pets, treats, attention, whatever).

    I ponder this because we’ve purposely worked on very calm greetings with our dogs. They’re huge – we don’t want to encourage excitement at meeting new people lest they get knocked over or otherwise intimidated. So Moses and Alma know that calmness when we come in the door is more likely to get the response they want from us – attention, pets, etc. This extends to feeding time, going outside, etc.

    Based on this, the testers would probably think our dogs don’t reciprocate the affection we have for them. And I’m not one to say either way whether our dogs love us or whether dogs feel love or whatever. I have no idea. But I think Kristine’s post today nails it – trust is more observable and arguably more important anyway.

  15. That really sounds like a skewed study. I can tell you without a doubt that in my household, Leah is the most attached to me and Toby is the least attached to me, with Meadow falling somewhere in the middle.

    If I took each dog, individually, to a room like that, I can tell you which two would be glued to my side – and which one would be wandering around checking things out – and that would be Toby. I would think that’s more of a test of a dog’s overall confidence in new situations, and really has nothing at all to do with how attached they are to their owners. Strange. I’m not even sure it proves how attached a child is.

  16. Congratulations on 1000 posts! I hope you keep going for a long time.
    We got multiple dogs so they could keep each other company when we have to leave home to work. But they are still just as happy to see us when we get home. Is it because they get a treat or they know I will throw the ball? Or did they just miss me? I like to think it’s for all of those reasons. I think they show it a little more when they’re younger too. Luke tends to cling to me when I first get home. Maybe that’s just because he’s not sure I’m going to stay, whereas the girls know I will.

  17. Big achievement Pamela, Congratulations!!

    My dogs are happy to see me when I come home, seek me out when they are afraid or uncertain, and that tells me they love me.

  18. Congrats on another extremely wise 1000th post!! I think the key thing to remember, as you have pointed out, is that they are a dog and so we cannot put human thoughts and reasoning onto them.

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