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.
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.
The Wrong Way To Study Dogs
…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?
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:
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?