Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Three dogs hug their humans.

Could it be love?

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.

Anthropomorphism

Three anthropomorphic cartoon dogs: Huckleberry Hound, Snoopy, and Scooby-Doo.
Huckleberry HoundSnoopy, and Scooby-Doo each created a humorous satire on certain human characteristics, but anthropomorphism gets in the way of scientists studying real dogs. (Images via Wikipedia)

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 HoundSnoopyScooby-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

Three dogs give their humans some very convincing hugs.
A Golden Retriever who passes out hugs in New York City, a demonstrative rescued pit bull, and a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy who leans on his human and pulls him closer (Photos: varied sources/First for Women).

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

Dogs trained to hold still for an MRI are showing us more and more about how many similarities there are between their brains and ours.
At left, parallel brain structures in human and dog brains activated in response to stimuli (in this case words, but in other studies it’s been smells) at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University. (image: Andics et al./Current Biology) Center: Border Collies and Golden Retrievers pose with the MRI in the Hungarian lab. (Photo: Borbala Ferenczy) At right, fMRI scans from Emory University show brain activity associated with decision-making. Similar studies using fMRI have demonstrated emotional reactions that parallel those of humans. (Photo: Berns et al./SSRN).

Oxytocin isn’t the only scientific proof that it could, indeed, be loveStudies 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.

Other indications

And then there’s body language. How can you mistake the message of the facial expressions,  the wriggling body, the wagging tail? How can you mistake the hugs? 

Could it be love? Watch this compilation of dogs greeting their returning soldiers home from deployment, then decide. What do you think?

https://youtu.be/RKBcs9tNWg8

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 HoundSnoopyand 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 MagazineAttila Andics and Current Biology, photographer Borbala Ferenczy, and to Wired MagazineGregory Berns, and SSRN. Finally, many thanks to YouTube and FunnyPlox, for the video of dogs greeting their homecoming soldiers.

Previous

Playing a long game

Next

Take time to stretch!

2 Comments

  1. I like this post. I’ve read other ones; “how to tell if your dog loves you” etc.. None of them ever go into the science side of it..

    • Glad you liked the science angle. As a writer of science fiction about dogs, I want to base my extrapolations in known facts. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén