For a long time, scientists were skeptical about attributing an emotion as complicated as love to any animals. Instead, they said, pets understand that their owners protect and feed them, and treat us accordingly. It might look like love, but it’s really just practical survival instincts.
But new research is calling that assumption into question, at least when it comes to humankind’s best friend. A new book from Clive Wynne, founder the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, explains how he started out as a skeptic but was ultimately swayed by his own research. He now believes that, yes, dogs feel a genuine warmth and affection for their owners that we might just have to call “love”.
Part of Wynne’s thesis actually comes from his research that suggests dogs might not be as intelligent as previously believed. Compared to other members of the animal kingdom, dogs are pretty mediocre in the brain game (this will come as little surprise to any dog owner). Wynne says that means some attributes previously attributed to dogs’ intelligence must have some other source. He suggests that dogs are instead set apart by a “hypersociability” or “extreme gregariousness”.
For example, Wynne has observed a spike in dogs’ oxytocin when they stare into a human’s eyes (oxytocin is the chemical compound responsible for creating emotional bonds). The effect observed in dogs is similar to what happens in the brains of mothers and their babies when they look at each other.
In 2009, UCLA geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt also found that dogs have a mutation of the gene responsible for Williams syndrome in humans. Williams syndrome is characterized by intellectual limitations and “exceptional gregariousness.” As Wynne puts it “the essential thing about dogs, as for people with Williams syndrome, is a desire to form close connections, to have warm personal relationships—to love and be loved.”
Our understanding of how animals think and feel is always developing and research is just starting to plumb the depths of the interior lives of our pets. But as far as dogs are concerned, it may be possible that “love” is not an emotion that’s exclusive to humans.