While we’ll never truly know what a dog is thinking when they gaze into our eyes, we hope it’s their way of showing us just how much we mean to them.
An Oxford academic has proven dogs genuinely love their owners – and they don’t just tolerate them because they give them sausages.
“The evidence is showing more and more that the relationship they have with their human is by any definition a loving relationship,” Dr Anna Machin told the Cheltenham Science Festival.
Studies have already shown that when humans in an MRI scanner see pictures of their dogs, their brains respond with a similar pattern to that seen when they look at their children, albeit with a lowered intensity which suggests that they would “probably rescue the kid first in a fire,” said Machin.
She added that the reverse is also true.
“As far as we know, dogs pass all the tests for love,” she added.
Their brains produce similar chemicals in response to bonding with their owner, including beta endorphins, that act like opioids.
“That’s kind of like the king of bonding chemicals. It’s the one that we expect in animals that have really long-term relationships,” said Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist and author of Why we love.
On its own this might not be enough but when coupled with the known behaviour of dog affection and the apparent heartache they show at our absence, she argued that it was churlish to assume their affection was anything but real.
“Dogs definitely attach to us, showing attachment behaviours. There is anecdotal evidence that dogs grieve when their owners die.
“And also obviously the dog-human relationship is a friendship. So as far as we know, they pass all the tests for love,” she said.
But other pets can be trickier, especially cats because they are more difficult to study and, in accordance with the stereotype, they do genuinely seem to have less empathy.
Given their evolutionary history, said Machin, that’s not surprising.
“A dog is pretty crappy going out hunting on its own. A cat though, is fine. So in terms of the co-evolution of that relationship, they don’t need it to be quite as embedded or intertwined.
“Obviously they don’t have the reflective elements of love, as far as we know when you dwell upon your relationship, you daydream about your relationship. I’m not sure they’re necessarily doing that. I think if they do do this, they probably daydream about sausages.”