Dog Love (A Post for Valentine’s Day)

Dog Love (Dog hugging human [Photo Credit: Steve Garner])

Dog hugging human [Photo Credit: Steve Garner]

When I was a researcher, something I was sensitive to were complaints from the general public that their tax dollars were being wasted on silly research projects. Then I’d hear a litany of those which did, at least superficially, seem useless in that they seemed to only verify the obvious. But, and here’s the big but: Did they really just substantiate what we already knew?

Here’s a sampling of a couple of those studies:
(1) Does cutting down trees on top of mountains and blasting their peaks off to get to the buried coal really hurt the environment?
(2) Do old people prefer to remember happy times?

So, are those two studies ridiculous? Turns out they provided valuable information. Let’s take a look:

Study #1: While we (obviously) know that taking out trees is bad for the environment, no one knew how really bad it was before Margaret Palmer and her colleagues at the University of Maryland collected data which showed this led to downstream flooding and toxic levels of selenium in West Virginia streams, that the blast dust can cause respiratory problems, and that reclaiming the mined areas by planting grass doesn’t work.

Study #2: With concerns about the impact of cognitive decline as we age, any advancement in understanding differences between the younger and geriatric populations could have a critical economic as well as psychological impact. This study found that older individuals do tend to reflect more on the positive side of life, thus giving us the surprising revelation that there is a biological basis for the phenomenon. This could help determine differences in memory encoding as we age, which could prove to be a critical component in the effort to eradicate dementia.

Since this is a post about dogs, we’ll stop listing further studies of this type here. But why have we brought up the subject of “silly” research studies? Quite simply it’s because the spotlight now turns to one we might initially cast into that category:

Do dogs love us?

We humans are creatures driven by curiosity and long ago we figured out that if we could understand the why, we had a chance of understanding how. Or vice versa. So, some of these seemingly obvious studies suddenly yielded exceptionally important and valuable results. Others have been the happenstance of accidents. Examples include: X-rays; the world’s first plastic, Bakelite; the microwave oven; Vaseline; and even, Viagra. (Our favorite happy accident is Velcro. It was invented by a Swiss electrical engineer named George de Mestral when he noticed how easily cockle burs attached to his dog’s fur.) Others great inventions or discoveries have been found by simply asking how or why, then drilling down to the basics and discovering the Wow.

Which brings me to the work of Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and the author of What It’s Like to Be a Dog. Berns uses magnetic resonance imaging to take pictures of dog brains. He has somehow managed to train the dogs to hold absolutely still for the procedures. And what did Berns discover? Something so obvious as to be laughable: Dogs love us. It’s not an act; it’s not fake.

Through carefully articulated, replicable tests, Berns and his team examined different centers of the dog brain as they responded to different stimuli. In one test they alternated between giving the dogs a premium treat (hot dogs) versus offering them praise. Looking at the pleasure centers of the dogs’ brains, the researchers found that nearly all the dogs responded to praise with as much pleasure as when they got a Coney Island hot dog special. A fifth of the dogs actually preferred praise to food. The conclusion? Dogs derive as much pleasure from love as they do from food.

Of course, not everyone is going to agree with Berns’ conclusion. There are still a wide number of people who think of dogs as mechanical objects, somehow insensate or absent the same neurological components as humans. Or, they attribute the dogs’ reactions to some other rational assessment such as a genetic determinant (e.g., the dog only licks you because his wolf ancestor used this to stimulate mama wolf to regurgitate food into her pup’s mouth).

Nevertheless, as writer Jonah Goldberg noted in the National Review:  “ . . .as almost anyone who has come home to their dog after an extended absence will tell you, dogs don’t go bonkers for missing loved ones solely because they think there’s a meal in it for them. [The evolutionary perspective.] And yet, there are people who argue almost precisely that….

But what it leaves out is the ingredient missing in almost all discussions of evolved behavior and genetic programming — not just for dogs but for people, too. Dogs obviously evolved to depend on humans, but humans also evolved to depend on dogs. From our genes’ perspective, we love our children to ensure that our DNA lives to see another day. But that’s not how we consciously think about it, nor does that explanation diminish the experience of love or make it any less real. Dog genes may be designed to con us, but the dogs themselves aren’t in on the caper. They just love us, because that’s what dogs do.”

Dog with Valentine Heart

Photo credit: Gloria Yarina

So, go give Fido some praise, some pats and (if you’re so inclined), a kiss). Because, after all, it’s VALENTINE’S DAY. Share the love.

Read more at:


We'd love to get your comments and feedback on this topic and post. To add your comments, scroll to the bottom of the page and "Leave a Reply" (type your thoughts into the text box).
No comments yet.

Leave a Reply