Does your dog really love you?

Jay Lee and his dog Noodle.
Jay Lee and his dog Noodle.

It's tricky enough to measure love between humans, so how hard is it to quantify love in your canine friends?


Jay Lee describes Noodle as cheeky and playful housemate who is credited for inspiring his career change into fashion.  

Mr Lee sees Noodle as a son, treating the three-year-old miniature poodle to premium dog food, regular strolls with a walker and weekly grooming sessions.

"I give him a lot of care, I live with him. He's my best buddy, he's my mate," Mr Lee says.

He also believes Noodle is capable of feeling love and loyalty for him.   

"It is love, definitely … When I come home I just need to put in the key into the key hole and I could hear the claws clicking and then I could see him jumping up and down with joy because he sees me."

While Mr Lee's interpretation of Noodle's "love" is not unique, dog trainer Steve Austin offers a different take.

"I think they live for today, they live for the now time and if they're being looked after correctly and they're being given the reward that they want and the attention that they want, they're loyal, absolutely."

Mr Austin has trained quarantine and conservation dogs for more than 25 years, and believes dogs generally enjoy being around humans because we provide them with a fun and rewarding environment but say their feelings may not neccessarily be the same as love.

"They have emotions, that's for sure.  Whether it's love like we understand love, partner to partner, son to daughter and so forth and so on, I don't know if they understand that like we do. I do know though that a lot of people love their dogs but the question is do the dogs love them back in the same way?  I think that would be the question that we need to have a long hard look at," he said. 

With roughly 4.2 million dogs or 19 canine friends for every 100 people, dogs are the most popular pet in Australia, according to the 2013 Pet Ownership in Australia survey.

And Australians are generous when it comes to their dogs, spending on average close to $400 per year on healthcare and veterinary services combined.

(Data compiled by SBS reporter Jason Thomas)


Since dogs can't talk, how can humans be really sure that their pets are appreciating their affections?

That's a question that Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns has been trying to answer.

A few years ago, Mr Berns started training dogs to go into a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner machine to measure activity in their brains. Without using any anaesthesia, drugs or restraints, the study looked at things like impulse control, how they process faces, smells, and their memory systems.

Mr Burns found that activity in a dog's caudate nucleus, also known as their "reward centre", increased in response to hand signals indicating food and to the return of their owner who had briefly stepped out of view.

"Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions," Mr Berns said in a column for The New York Times.

While this may not exactly prove that our furry friends love us, Mr Berns is willing call it love. "It means that they have preferred people, and I think that's love."  

Another dog owner, Associate Professor Pauline Bennett tells SBS her gut instinct says her dogs do see her as the most important person in their lives, but as a scientist it's hard to tell.  

"Whether they actually feel love, I don't know, I don't know how to tell. I feel like my dogs do, so if you're asking me as a dog owner then yes, definitely my dogs love me like I love them. The fact that an area of brain lights up and it's the same area that lights up in a human really doesn't answer that question for us," Ms Bennett said.

Regardless of the science, Mr Lee's adoration for Noodle remains unchanged and many pet owners would probably agree.

"Dogs are very intuitive and especially Noodle, he could feel if someone loves him or someone has bad intentions towards him and he will go up to them he will say hi to them in his doggie way. If he sees someone who, whether it's human or dogs, who doesn't like him, he would bark at them," Mr Lee said.

From assisting people with a disability, detecting pests and illegal substances to working on the farm, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that show that the status of dogs has evolved from being a mere guard dog to very treasured member of the family, even if it's unreciprocated.


On this week's episode of Insight, we look what science has to say about dogs emotions and delve into what our treatment of them says about the human psyche. We ask: Where should we draw the line with humanising our furry friends?

How do you show your love for your dog? Can you describe the type of behaviour that your dog does which demonstrates their "love" for you? Leave your comments below.


Source: SBS, Insight