Does your dog love you? Or are you just projecting? Scientists try very hard to avoid anthropomorphizing their animal study subjects. Emotions are difficult to measure. But now we’re finally getting closer to answering the question, “could it be love?”
This is the third and final (for now) post in a series about dog cognition. In case you missed them, click: “Dogs: verbal virtuosos?” and “How much does your dog understand?” I’ve also previously written about working dogs on this blog–a post that touched on dog cognition, but didn’t go into as much depth.
This series started when I wrote a guest post on dog cognition for Booker T’s Farm, a blog devoted to books and dogs (a great combo!) Their format, however, didn’t include the hyperlinks to sources that I’d suggested. (Note: Booker T’s Farm also later posted a very nice review of What’s Bred in the Bone).
Because science doesn’t stand still, there’s also some updated information to add. That (and the chance to share links to sources) is why I decided to expand on my August post with this series.
When humans attribute human characteristics or emotions to non-human entities (weather conditions, animals, plants, gods or other things), they are anthropomorphizing. It’s an impulse as old as human “behavioral modernity.” In fact, one of our oldest artworks is anthropomorphic.
The so-called “Lion-Man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel,” also called Löwenmensch figurine, is an ivory sculpture about a foot tall, that was found in Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany. It’s the oldest example of what everyone agrees is figurative art, carbon-dated between 40,000 and 35,000 years old. You might recall dogs have probably been hanging out with humans somewhere in the neighborhood of 32,000 years.
So, yeah. We have an apparently-innate tendency to anthopomorphize all kinds of things (just for fun, run an image search with the keywords “faces on inanimate objects”). And while Huckleberry Hound, Snoopy, Scooby-Doo, and dozens of other anthropomorphic dogs might be fun ways to poke humor at certain types of human characteristics, but they do nothing to help scientists understand real dogs.
The right chemistry
The human tendency to anthropomorphize may be hard to control for, but blood chemistry is entirely another matter, when we ask, “could it be love?”
Several studies have shown that oxytocin levels (the so-called “love hormone”) rise in both dogs and humans during interactions. When the human smiles, they look at each other, and when they snuggle, or when dogs are caressed, both release more oxytocin. Some researchers believe this mutual reaction is key to dog domestication.
In humans and other animals oxytocin is “correlated with the preferences of individuals to associate with members of their own group.” Thus, it’s not surprising that it’s been found to be important in bonding between mates and mothers and their infants, as well as humans and companion animals.
Could it be love? Check the MRIs
Oxytocin isn’t the only scientific proof that it could, indeed, be love. Studies of dogs in MRI scanners show the brain structure (caudate nucleus) associated with anticipation and positive feelings lights up in dogs when they smell the odor of a familiar person.
Other MRI-scan brain studies reconfirm the dogs’ verbal recognition skills, and offer the beginnings of understanding how dogs make decisions.
Could it be love? Watch this compilation of dogs greeting their returning soldiers home from deployment, then decide. What do you think?
Dog owners know: dogs “get” us, in a way few other animals do. After 32,000 years, even the scientists are beginning to agree.
IMAGE CREDITS: The cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. Many thanks to Wikipedia for this images of Huckleberry Hound, Snoopy, and Scooby-Doo. Thanks and hugs to First For Women and their adorable photo feature, “12 Adorable Pics of Dogs Hugging their Humans for Valentine’s Day,” the source of the “Dog Hugs” composite. For the “Dog Brain Scans” composite, I wish to thank Wired Magazine, Attila Andics and Current Biology, photographer Borbala Ferenczy, and to Wired Magazine, Gregory Berns, and SSRN. Finally, many thanks to YouTube and FunnyPlox, for the video of dogs greeting their homecoming soldiers.