Do Our Pets Really Love Us?

Do Our Pets Really Love Us?
By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

In the English language, we have just one word to describe the different types of love. The ancient Greeks were a bit smarter in this respect; they used different words to describe the love for a spouse, a sibling, a parent or a friend.

You have to wonder which word they used to describe the love between pets and people. We know how we feel towards our pets, but do they experience the same emotions toward us? Or is the bond simply a mixture of instinct, dependence and social role?

In short, do our pets really "love" us, as we understand it? In a word, the answer is yes, according to clinical evidence. Food does play a large role in feelings of affection between pet and owner. But dog does not live by biscuit alone – and neither does a cat's affection depend solely on treats. The mere presence and/or touch of a preferred person have been shown to reduce the heart rate of these animals – a sign of bonding. (The same is true with horses.)

Puppy Love

Like people, dogs don't simply like or love someone just because they are there. The personality of the pet and the person makes a large difference. A dominant or independent dog, for instance, is less likely to become enamored with a submissive owner. But he may become attached to someone who is a strong leader. This same person may terrify a dog that has endured hard times. A dog like this is more likely to adore a comparatively gentle owner.

In his book, Dogs Don't Lie About Love, Jeffrey Masson wrote about his relationship with three rescued dogs. Presuming that these dogs were needy, and he is a kind person, the title makes sense. These dogs very likely wear their adoring hearts on their sleeves, so to speak. In my first book, The Dog Who Loved Too Much, I wrote about a needy, hyper-attached dog with separation anxiety. It was the dog's owner who came up with the title to describe her dog's apparent, total devotion and intolerance of separation.

Some dogs do become hopelessly devoted to their owners, greeting them so exuberantly that the owner has no doubt he or she is the center of the dog's universe. But this kind of love is fawning, pathetic and, in a way, self-serving to the dog. It is certainly not a healthy sort of love.

At the other end is a very dominant, confident and independent dog. These dogs may border on indifference, and their feelings are along the lines of tolerance than attachment. They tolerate the owners simply because they are fed.

What is far better is the love in which a dog has learned to trust and respect his owner without abject humility, fear or desperate need to be around all the time. The image this brings to mind is that of a mature Labrador walking beside his beloved owners, perhaps on the beach. Such dogs have enough confidence to run off and play in the ocean, but enjoy returning to the social group that is the family. This can be described as a healthy love.

Of course, there are those special bonds we have all heard about – when an owner dies, but his or her dog waits patiently for their return. Such was the case of Greyfriars Bobby, an Edinburg dog who sat by his master's grave for many years, until his death, waiting for his master's return. If that is not love, I don't know what is.