Dogs are no longer just our figurative best friends. Close to one-third of the participants in a Medical College of Virginia study said they felt closer to their dogs than to anyone else in their family. When surveyed by the American Animal Hospital Association, well over half of the respondents said that, if marooned on a desert island, they’d opt for the companionship of their dog over that of their partner. Now, that’s love (for the dog, anyway).
But do they love us back? Their sheer joy in our company provides ample evidence that they do. Here’s Charles Darwin on the look of love: “Man himself cannot express love ... so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master.” Most experts seem to agree that dogs have the capacity to share our feelings. Their mammalian brains include a limbic system, which busily labels input with emotional significance. Behaviorist Patricia McConnell reports that dogs feel a surge of oxytocin (often called the “cuddle hormone”) when they interact with people, and, in fact, researcher and author of Dog Sense John Bradshaw even suggests that dogs’ oxytocin quintuples and both their endorphin and dopamine double during playtime.
Yes, they wag their tails and their hormones spike. But, like every anxious paramour, we wonder, do they love us? Dogs don’t tell. And therein may lie their secret to success. They are our sympathetic, speechless supporters. As Dale Peterson writes in The Moral Lives of Animals, “We talk to our dogs because we know they listen, and if their understanding is limited to a few basic words and concepts, so much the better. We love them for their powerful simplicity.”
The Aborigines say that dogs make us human. The reverse is equally important: humans made canines dogs. The magic in that mutual regard is strong stuff, beyond words even.♥
This article first appeared in The Bark,