Synopsis: The exciting, new, and not so new, scientific evidence offering proof that dog’s love is real love put simply, some of the many and often surprising benefits of a love relationship with a dog, and what you can learn about real love from a dog and a dog’s love is summarily presented.
Canine Love and PeopleTime again in my psychotherapy practice, I saw love of and from a pet, mainly dogs, make a huge, sometimes life-saving difference. Sometimes a depressed and lonely person getting a dog turned the tide of a deteriorating life into one moving up and forward. Frequently in treating hurt and troubled children, a pet dog and its love proved to be amazingly therapeutic. Many times getting a canine pet, especially a puppy, greatly aided parents and whole families become more love-oriented.
Pet dogs in the lives of the postwar trauma and disabled veterans, who I and my colleagues treated, was often crucial. Some couples I worked with first learned some of the most important how-to’s of love from their pet dogs. In divorce and love-loss recovery, dog love has been vital in preventing breakdowns, suicides, addiction relapses and countless hours lost to depressive malfunctioning.
But of course there are the disbelievers who say dogs really can’t love only humans can do that, and there are those who are quite sure that for dogs it’s just all about food. There are the skeptics who ask, “How can you can really prove dogs can really love” and they say to dog lovers “Aren’t you just anthropomorphizing and seeing what you want to see?” Plus, they ask, “Where’s the definitive evidence?”
Also from health insurance companies has come similar ideas justifying denials of services for canine assisted psychotherapy. And that is even though increasing numbers of research studies have appeared which show how much it helps. In fact, a whole movement for canine assisted counseling and psychotherapy has blossomed into existence. I’m familiar with a number of therapists involved in pet assisted therapy. They tend to claim, sometimes only secretly, that it is the love relationship between the patient and the dog that makes the therapeutic difference. However, they have avoided reporting so officially because that isn’t thought to be acceptable in certain circles of professional influence.
Of course, for ages dog owners have proclaimed they absolutely know their pets truly loved them and they truly love their pets. Countless true stories exist about dogs heroically saving their masters and even members of their master’s family’s lives. Sometimes even after experiencing great pain and injury themselves. But was it really because of love? Well now, thanks to the brain sciences, we are beginning to have solid, science-based proof that dogs give and get real love.
The Brain Sciences and Dogs Who LoveIt took a while to teach the 90 subject dogs to be still in MRI machines to get their brains scanned, while half received food in one experimental trial condition and half received verbal love messages in another. One hypothesis was the data from the dog’s brains would show high activity indicating they valued the food in the reward centers of their brains far more than the verbal love sounds coming to their ears. It was surprising to learn that for many dogs the two proved equal; the food did not elicit a greater response and wasn’t superior. But in a significant number of others dogs, the neurological brain activity measurements proved the verbal love messages and sounds to be much more rewarding and more important than the food. So, for dogs, receiving a verbal, behavioral love input was shown to be equal to, or superior to receiving food. More brain science research on dog love is continuing at Emory University under the direction of neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Burns.
Other findings have showed that dogs can recognize and differentiate their master’s face from other human faces. When they make this recognition their brains light up much like humans do, from infancy on, when seeing someone who they share a love relationship with. It has long been observed that dogs go more quickly to their masters who exhibit loving behaviors including just loving facial looks. These dogs also then begin to give actions of affection to their loving masters. This strongly suggests that the limbic system brain centers that process love and the neurochemical reactions of processing love are likely to be much the same in humans and dogs. That is exactly what the research evidence is increasingly pointing to.
Now, as we begin to scan inside the dog brains, we are beginning to see amazing similarities in how dogs and humans psychoneurologically process love. The brain activity evidence shows that the neuro-electrical and neuro-chemical events in the limbic system of dog brains react much like a humans does when getting and when giving behaviors commonly associated with love.
Consider any two living beings having similarly structured brains. When in the brains of any two such living beings, the same regions of their brains react the same way neuro-physically, neuro-electrically and neuro-chemically; and also when their accompanying, observable behavior is much the same, there is a most logical interpretation to be arrived at. That interpretation is it is only reasonable to conclude that those two being are processing (i.e. mentally experiencing, thinking/feeling) much the same thing. This exactly is what is proving to be true with dogs and humans interacting with each other while exhibiting the behaviors commonly associated with love. Thus, the preponderance of this growing body of evidence points to dogs love being real love. We are not likely to get much better evidence for this conclusion until someone invents a real way to actually do the Vulcan Mind Meld.
What Does Animal Comparative Psychology Have To Say?The psychologists who compare the actions, reactions and interactions of animals with the same in humans are not at all surprised at the kind of results or conclusions just mentioned. Not so long ago, the great comparative psychologist, Dr. Harry Harlow, proved that to baby monkeys receiving mother love was more important than receiving food. Some infant monkeys even would starve themselves to death preferring to receive loving contact comfort from a mother surrogate rather than give that up for acquiring needed food. No one expected that result and when it was discovered that part of the experiment was altered so infant monkeys did not have to suffer further starvation.
Harlow also discovered that baby monkeys who did not sufficiently receive the behaviors that give love in infancy and childhood were never able to successfully mate or healthfully interact with other monkeys. This was true until they were given monkey therapy in the form of being lovingly treated probably by graduate student lab assistants. Just like with human babies, non-loved and little-loved monkey infants were prone to early death involving failure to thrive deterioration syndromes.
It is to be noted that at the time of that research few researchers using animals thought that love, or for that matter most psychological factors, had much of anything to do with animals’ physical health and survival. Consequently, it was Harlow’s discoveries which led to a revolution in the improved treatment of lab animals and after that zoo and circus animals; and the effects of those love findings are still spreading. Human infants already were receiving much better love behavior treatment because pediatric research had discovered the same thing Harlow did with lab monkeys. His famous research book is Learning to Love .
Now through comparative psychology’s efforts, along with neuropsychologists and other neuro-scientists, we have learned what looks like a very important general truth. That truth seems to be that all higher order species, and especially mammals, have brains that make similar, healthful responses to the behaviors that are associated with giving and receiving love. Therefore, the evidence more and more points to many animals, including dogs and humans, being able to give, get and do real love.
Hence, the preponderance of available evidence points to what dog owners have always known. You really do love your dog and your dog really does love you. It is a real love relationship and it can do you a world of good to have that love relationship.
The Many Benefits of Loving and Being Loved by a DogWhen you have a good love relationship with a dog, your stress hormones are likely to be lowered as is your bad cholesterol. Your neurochemical reactions which allow and help you be happier will be much more active, and your immunity mechanisms will work better at keeping you from getting sick or infected. The relating you do with others is likely to be more love-oriented and more effectively responsive. If others see you with your dog, they are likely to be more positive toward you than they might have been. Playing with and walking your dog will get you more exercise.
If danger is around, your dog is more likely to become alerted to it before you and then may alert and save you from some dire occurrence. If you are ill or wounded in some way, having your pet dog around is likely to help you heal faster and maybe heal better. If you are recovering from injury or engaged in any other kind of recovery and rehabilitation, it is much more likely to go better as you keep lovingly interacting with your pooch. Psychologically, a love relationship with a good pet dog often acts like a good antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medication with no bad side effects. On and on go the benefits; we don’t have space here for all of them so far discovered.
Learning Love from DogsOnce long ago, as a scout with other scouts, I was in a large wigwam listening to an ancient Lakota Indian wise woman tell of how the great spirit put dogs into the life of humans to teach us how to love. It seems, according to that wisdom filled legend, we were not all that good at love until the dogs taught us how. They taught by example of love’s loyalty, caring concern, forgiving nature, playful affection, protection focus and a host of other ways love gets demonstrated. So, I suggest you look to your pet dog to model for you some of the best ways love gets done. Translate what you see into human behavior. Then see if you can do as well at love as your pet dog does.
Now one more little thing. You might want to share this mini-love-lesson with a dog lover you know or with someone you think might do well to have a pet dog. Also you might want to check out this other mini-love-lesson, “Pet Love”.
As always – Go and Grow with Love