It must be love?

As a dog owner you most likely love your dog. And you most likely hope that your dog loves you. But can we really know if our dogs truly love us? Until now we have only had our ability to read our dog’s body language and facial expressions to determine if it truly is L.O.V.E.

chilli pyramid treat dispenser
Just what is Chilli dog trying to say in her facial expressions? -“I love you Mum? or “Please fill up my treat ball”

Recently scientists have begun to scan canine brains in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. This is no easy feat since these machine demand a degree of stillness that our canine companions rarely concede. Yes, when there are asleep they are generally peaceful (apart from when they are dreaming!) but this state cannot give us an indication of brain patterns as they gaze at, listen to or smell us, their humans. Dogs needed to be trained to remain still within the scanners.

Training involved step by step introductions to placing their heads into  brain case, onto a chin rest, hearing a scanner sound, climbing the scanner steps to enter the machine, wearing earmuffs and looking at hand signals of humans. You can see the process here…

What scans revealed

Dogs’ reactions to humans scents and sounds have been investigated and canine MRI scans have revealed that…

We smell good…

The good news for dog owners is that dogs prefer the scent of their own humans to all other presented scents which included scents of other dogs, both familiar and unfamiliar ones and unknown humans. The aroma of their owner sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains, called the caudate nucleus. Dogs enjoy our smell.

We should be happy

Dogs’ brains also lit up when we spoke to them with light, happy talk. Perhaps not surprising to many dog owners who know their dogs seem to understand every work and perk their ears when we ‘baby talk’ them. This, however, is the first time that we have been able to measure our dog’s response at such a detailed level.

So, our many years of evolution together have certainly produced animals that are in tune with their human companions. Maybe we could even interpret this as love.

MRI dogs

Do human brain scans show a similar response?

Many of us consider our dogs to be like a child to us and in an interesting study scientists, again looking at MRI brain activity, gave mothers pictures of their dogs and their children to compare their responses. Viewing both images resulted in activation of brain regions involved in emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social cognition and the mothers stated they viewed their child and dog with similar excitement and valence (pleasantness) levels.

There were, however, slight differences between the way we viewed our children and our dogs. Viewing images of their child resulted in mid-brain activity, related to reward and affiliation. In other words we bond with our child as we look at them.Viewing images of our own dogs resulted in more posterior cortical brain activity, related to visual processing of faces and social cognition. In other words, we enjoy looking at our dogs (we also enjoy looking at unfamiliar dogs) and are trying to process their faces.

Perhaps we are constantly trying to read our dog’s expressions?


It must be love

So it seems we love our dogs. We love to look at them and try to understand what their faces and behaviour are revealing to us. Dogs love our sounds and our scents. Perhaps this is because they know that a treat is likely to be forthcoming. Or perhaps it is because they truly love us.

What do you think. Does your dog love you?


More reading…

Do dogs dream?

Dogs in MRI: research paper

Do dogs enjoy the human scent?: research paper

Do dogs enjoy the human sound?: research paper

Patterns of Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog



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