Image: Yaisin Bulut via Getty Images
Let’s talk about puppy love. Not youthful romance, but the love between a person and his or her pooch. As every dog lover knows, canine companions make for some of the best friends we could wish for. They play with us, cuddle with us, listen to us and make us feel like the most special people on the planet the moment we walk through the front door. We love them, and they love us -- or so we assume. Since our furry, floppy-eared friends aren’t able to tell us how they really feel, we’re stuck staring into their puppy-dog eyes, wondering what kinds of thoughts are flying around behind them.
The more we know as owners, the better we can promote our pets’ emotional wellness. To learn more about the doggy mind and how to nourish it, we partnered with Purina and the Purina Better With Pets Summit in search of answers to dog owners’ most pressing questions about canine psychology. And, thanks to science, we now know a lot more about what Fido and Fifi are really thinking and feeling.
“Does my dog feel guilty after he does something bad?”
We all know what it looks like: the head hanging low, ears drooping and gaze averted. It’s the look our dogs get after they’ve pooped on the living room carpet or swiped half of our breakfast while our backs were turned. But even though man’s best friend is showing all the same signs of guilt that we see in humans, that doesn’t mean he’s actually sorry. Sandra Lyn, Ph.D., a behaviorist at Nestlé Purina, says we assume that dogs feel guilty about misbehaving because we tend to anthropomorphize them, meaning we think about them as if they were human. We assume that they share our cognitive and emotional abilities, which leads us to read their behaviors the same way we would read a human’s. But, as much as we may want to deny it, dogs are not like humans -- and they don’t feel guilty like humans do, either.
According to Dr. Gregory Berns, a leading neuroscientist in the field of canine cognition and author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, the simple explanation for your dog’s guilty-seeming behavior is that he has learned to anticipate you yelling at him, and that’s why he hangs his head. And since nearly 60 percent of dog owners say their dogs’ guilty behavior causes them to scold them less, that bowed head might be your pooch’s way of reducing conflict.
“Guilt is not just an emotion,” explains Berns. “It’s also a complex cognitive process. To experience guilt you have to have reference to yourself, you have to have reference to the past, you have to remember what you did, [and you have to] know that it was something that you weren’t supposed to do. It’s not clear that dogs have all of those capabilities.” So the next time your pup tries to pull the guilt act, remember that he’s probably not sorry that he peed on your bathrobe -- but he is sorry to be called out on his faux pas.
“Does my dog get jealous?”
Ah, the green-eyed monster. You’ve probably gotten the feeling that your furry friend experiences envy whenever you’re focusing on someone else because he nuzzles you or barks until he regains your attention. The truth is that while we can’t say definitively that dogs get jealous, research supports the theory. A 2014 study published in PLOS ONE showed that dogs tended to display significantly more jealous behaviors (such as getting between their owner and an object, pushing or touching their owner and snapping) when their owners showed affection for a stuffed toy dog. By contrast, they showed fewer jealous behaviors when the owners were interacting with a plastic jack-o-lantern and a children’s book. They possibly perceived more competition in the toy that they thought could be real. As anyone with more than one canine companion has likely witnessed firsthand, pups don’t take kindly to their owners doling out affection to another dog. According to the authors of the study, the findings support the view that dogs do, indeed, get jealous. Green-eyed monster, thy name is Sparky.
“Does my dog care about me?”
It should come as no surprise to pet lovers that dogs do indeed care about their owners, but what is surprising is how perceptive they are of the little things that impact you and your well-being. Research shows that dogs may be able to tell when their owners are being snubbed by someone else, and they in turn act coldly toward the people doing the dissing. In the experiment, dogs watched as their owners asked for help and either were rudely ignored or received aid. The overwhelming majority of the dogs whose owners didn’t receive help ignored food offered to them by the person who had snubbed their human. Scientists say this is likely a form of social eavesdropping, or the use of information collected by observing interactions between others, and it shows that your dog has your back.
Canine companions are also skilled at sensing our emotions. “Dogs are so good at reading [human] emotions that they will often pick up on subtle changes in voice intonation associated with affective state and respond accordingly,” explains Ragen T.S. McGowan, Ph.D., a senior behavior scientist at Nestlé Purina. “For example, [they offer] comfort when an owner is feeling down or [get] excited when their owner is in a joyous mood.” It’s a lot like the kind of care your best friend might show you during your ups and downs (no surprise, then, that dogs have earned the title of “man’s best friend”). According to a 2015 study published in Current Biology, dogs can also read emotions in our faces, perceiving through our expressions whether we’re happy, sad or angry. That explains why your pup may be more playful with you when you’re in good spirits or cuddle with you when you’re sad; they sense your emotional state and respond accordingly.
Just as dogs can sense how we’re feeling, owners can usually identify their pets’ moods based on their behaviors, too. Berns notes that dogs may actually experience emotions even more purely than humans do. “Humans have language and the capacity to almost cognitively separate themselves from experiences,” he explains, “so [we] can view [ourselves] from different perspectives and evaluate things that cause [us] to feel certain ways. That’s a uniquely human capacity.” This ability to self-analyze can blunt the sharpness of our feelings, Berns suggests, and it’s unlikely that any other animal can do the same. So while your dog undoubtedly has your back when you’re feeling down, you can bet he could use a friend when he’s feeling down, too: he may be experiencing that emotion even more intensely than we can imagine.
“What is my dog thinking when I FaceTime or Skype with her?”
So you’ve missed your dog so much while you’re away that you asked someone to help you video chat with her. (Hey, we’ve all been there, and we don’t blame you.) While getting a glimpse of your pup and saying hello over the airwaves may make you feel better and strengthen your bond, you probably can’t help but ask yourself: “Does she even know that it’s me?”
The short answer is: maybe. While dogs are experts at recognizing people by their scents, smell isn’t a factor in video chatting; dogs would instead need to rely on facial and voice recognition in order to know that it’s you. A recent study in PeerJ conducted by Berns’ team found that, like primates, dogs have a specific part of the brain that processes faces, and it’s active when dogs are viewing images of people. Still, it hasn’t been proven yet whether dogs can recognize their owners by face alone. Whatever the case, it can’t hurt to Skype -- especially because it at least makes you feel closer to your canine friend, even if she can’t tell you’re on the other end.
“Does my dog love me?”
And here it is: the million-dollar question every dog owner is dying to have answered (but let’s face it, you already have your suspicions). To those who share special bonds with their pups, it may seem like a no-brainer; of course dogs love us. But others have their doubts about that bond -- specifically, they wonder whether dogs have the capacity to feel love as we know it, and whether their affectionate behaviors have more to do with the fact that we provide them with food and shelter rather than with the L word.
Berns suggests that the question of whether dogs truly love their humans depends on the dog and on the person. Just as some human relationships are transactional in nature -- for instance, you can love someone because they make you feel a certain way -- part of dogs’ affection for humans does stem from the fact that we feed them and take care of them. In some cases, though, he believes that it goes “beyond that” for dogs.
“I’ve seen many dogs who just like being around their person,” Berns says. “They crave the attention, they crave the contact and they will choose that over food. Is that love? I would call it that, yes. We call it that in humans.” It’s also possible that some breeds of dogs may be more likely than others to develop that strong bond with their humans. Researchers, including Berns, are exploring that very question in order to determine if some furry friends may make better service dogs than others.
Studies support the theory that dogs do feel the warm-and-fuzzies for their humans -- even more so than for their animal friends. In a study published in ScienceDirect in 2015, Berns and his colleagues presented dogs with the scents of their owner, a human they didn’t know, a familiar dog (usually one that lived in the same home), an unfamiliar dog and the subject dogs’ own scent. They used fMRI technology to monitor the dogs’ brain activity, and they found that of all the scents, only the familiar human scent activated the dogs’ caudate nucleus -- the part of the brain that, in humans, becomes activated when we anticipate things we like or enjoy. This suggests that dogs have a positive association with the human scent, and may in fact be experiencing feelings of love as we do.
While we can’t interpret canine behaviors the same way we interpret human ones, we can use physiological clues to guess how pups might be feeling when they’re around their owners. McGowan notes that when people come in close contact with their loved ones, they experience physiological changes, including an increase in circulating oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in pair bonding. “The same is true for dogs being pet and cuddled by their owners,” says McGowan. “Recent work with fMRI demonstrates that dogs show increases in brain activity when their owners step back into view after having stepped out, highlighting the close connection that they share.”
They say there’s no bond quite like the one between man and his best friend, after all, and while science can’t yet say for sure whether puppy love is real, it certainly looks a lot like love, both in the behavior and in the brain.
Purina is committed to providing pet owners with the tools they need to promote their pet’s physical and mental health. The Purina Better With Pets Summit addresses all the ways pets and people are better together, shining a spotlight on the emotional wellness of pets and the people who love them. Discover how to nourish your pet’s mind by providing even better nutrition, helping them achieve a sense of purpose, maintaining a healthy environment and learning to assess your pet’s mental state. Share your experiences and tell us how your life is #BetterWithPets.