Did you know there’s considerable research underway to answer the question “Do dogs really love us?” As to be expected with anything undertaken by humans, the answers are in total conflict with each other. The “no they don’t” side has a twofold argument. First, they argue that dogs aren’t people and it’s simple anthropomorphism to think dogs exhibit human emotion. Second, they argue that as dogs morphed from wolves they now simply need us to survive.
Jon Katz, a social scientist who writes extensively on the topic, calls this “opportunistic, manipulative behavior” in contrast to what people like me (and you too, I imagine, since you’re reading this) have long called unconditional love. “They’ll respond to anyone who gives them food and attention. I have a wonderful Labrador retriever who’s very happy here. But if you had hamburger meat on you, she’d gladly go to Chicago with you and never look back.” What do you expect from someone named Katz?
On the other side, consider recent work conducted at Emory University. Noting that smell is likely dogs’ most powerful and important sense, researchers conducted a study on dogs trained to remain motionless while awake in an MRI machine; this allowed the scientists to observe what happens in that portion of the brain that lights up when good things occur. Dogs were presented with five different smells: their own, that of a favorite person, an unknown person, a familiar dog, an unknown dog. You guessed it, bells and whistles happened when Lassie smelled Timmy.
I’m not someone who shies away from meaningful research even if I’m uncomfortable with the conclusions, but I don’t need scientists to tell me what I see. I’ve spent far too many years around far too many dogs and their people for me to be unclear. Dogs can and indeed many do love us as deeply and, yes, as unconditionally as we love them. With Valentine’s Day approaching, let’s keep that in mind.