Take the 2-minute tour ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.

A common assumption about household pets is that there is a mutual endearment between owner and pet. Searching the internet finds handfuls of people asking the same question and there are plenty of editorial comments on whether our fluffy friends love us back.

To approach this from a skeptical standpoint, what emotional details do we know about animals? Have studies been done on emotional attachments of dogs to people?

"Love" is a difficult term to pin down even with regards to human interaction but, for the sake of this question, here is a definition I pulled from the dictionary:

love — an intense feeling of deep affection

To phrase this as applicable to dogs: Can dogs possess feelings of deep affection for their owners? Aside from purely behavioral traits, is there any evidence one way or the other?

share|improve this question
2  
I also like dogs, and their affection towards a caring owner is unquestionable to me, but I'm really curious ( skeptical ? ) about the methodology which could be employed to measure the depth of a dog's affection :D –  Mihai Rotaru Jun 9 '11 at 21:00
1  
@Mihai: Measured in centi-Odysseus' pooches? –  dmckee Jun 9 '11 at 23:13
5  
"I admit that I personally am liable to anthropomorphize" - And I'm not ashamed of doing that. Thinking about it, I find it plausible that dogs might equally canimorphize us: think of us as if we were some kind of dog. –  ChrisW Jun 10 '11 at 3:21
2  
i think if you redefined the definition of "love" to something that was more behavioral based (like show extreme loyalty etc.) instead of affection which is essentially just another feeling, and impossible to measure, this question will be more answerable. –  Samuelson Jun 10 '11 at 3:46
2  
I think if you take an ethology approach, and you go into behavioural details like body language, you can say quite a log about a dog, like "feels good, confortable, bad, scared ...". You might be able to answer questions like "Does the dog feel better in a company of his master than other dogs/people?", "How difficult is it to switch a master for a dog?", "Is dog likely to take some sacrifice to save his master?" (Last would loosely correspond to a biblical definition of love bible.cc/john/15-13.htm) –  Suma Jun 10 '11 at 7:06
show 5 more comments

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

After some research, I was elated to find out that studies have been conducted, about dogs in general and specifically about their affection towards owners. As a disclaimer, I don't claim my answer proves dogs can love their owners - but existing evidence seems to suggest they do.

In order to determine whether dogs can posses deep affection towards their owners, we need to establish whether dogs have such feelings. From this study:

The results suggest that playful, social, exploratory, avoidant and aggressive behaviour in dogs is influenced by stable dispositions; i.e. personality traits, that seem to have been important during the evolution of the domestic dog.

It's behind a pay wall, so unfortunately we cannot scrutinize the methodology, but this study concludes that dogs do have what could be classified as personality traits. If we accept this, then we can safely assume a dog's behavior - more specifically, behaviour identified with affection - can very well be influenced by factors outside the physiological realm.

Then we have this study - it's research subjects are specifically dogs living at rescue centers, so whether it's conclusions can be applied to dogs in general is debatable. However, citing from the abstract:

The specific response of the handled dogs toward the handler fulfilled the operational criteria of attachment. In shelter conditions, the remarkable demand for social contact with humans may result in rather fast forming of attachment even in adult dogs.

In conclusion, existing research seems to corroborate the common sense claims that dogs do develop affection towards their owners. As for how much affection, I doubt research is available. However, anecdotal reports abound, such as the very touching case of Cpl. Liam Tasker and his dog, Theo:

enter image description here

The dog died shortly after it's owner was killed in a firefight, for no apparent reason other than the death of it's caring owner.

share|improve this answer
    
After looking at the abstract for your second linked study, I would conclude that any emotions attached to the dog would be more similar to loyalty or safety. But good links. :) –  MrHen Jun 12 '11 at 17:44
    
@MrHen How do we know human love is any different from that? Not considering divine influence, loyalty and safety/trust may be all that there is to it. –  Stefan Nov 12 '12 at 23:10
    
@Stefan: Human love is self-defined by humans to be more than that. We can perceive a difference between the terms enough to make sentences such as, "I am loyal to them, but do I truly love them?" parse just fine. But, still, you have a point. :) –  MrHen Nov 15 '12 at 18:47
    
@MrHen Just because we can create sentences like that does not mean those concepts actually exist. And lets not forget that even for humans the concept of love is seen differently based on the context. I.e compare the love for a spouse to the love for your child or your parent. Love is a fuzzy concept. But i do think my cats love me in their own selfish ways ;) (just like kids love candy) –  Stefan Nov 15 '12 at 21:14
    
@Stefan: Welcome to the world of linguistics. ;) –  MrHen Nov 26 '12 at 19:42
show 2 more comments

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.