What is it about the love from our dogs that seems to trump all other loves throughout all the ups and downs of life? Recently, a study called the “Dog Project” has shown how dogs unleash new answers on why they love us.
Dogs’ love is not just towards humans, but evident in how they bond with other dogs. The two stray dogs – the blind Jeffrey and his dedicated guide Jermaine – found in streets of Philadelphia’s Chester County on Nov. 16 are described “inseparable.” A local pet shelter spokesperson wrote that “This demonstration of unconditional love and devotion these two dogs show is positively inspirational.”
Gregory Berns, professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, tried out what he called “The Dog Project” by using an fMRI (functional MRI) machine to discover whether dogs really love us or just consider humans sources of food. He wrote about it in his book How Dogs Love Us. This research direction is a different turn than previous works, since he and his associates normally concentrated on how fMRI scans can reveal how “sacred values” affect human behavior in decision making processes. Berns took definite risks in applying the noisy MRI scan to strategically read emotions of dogs, and this book describes his journey of thought and experimentation.
After Berns observed photos of dogs who trained to ride in helicopters with Navy SEALS which were as loud as MRI machines, he figured the noise barrier could be overcome. The dogs even performed a parachute jump while strapped to a human. Somehow Berns thought, they had to do the procedure without sedating the dog so he and his colleagues could gather valid data.
He decided to use his own small, black, feisty dog named Callie who would do anything for a small piece of hot dog in obedience classes. After several weeks, with the aid of numerous small hot dogs, Callie acquiesced to donning a pair of sound-blocking earmuffs, jump into an MRI machine, and lie flat long enough for the team to take a scan of her brain to discover some of what she was thinking.
Berns is not shy about his doubts of the usual scientific method, which he says does not always produce the most interesting results. He openly questions how experiments and studies get paid for and does not mind discussing the legal and ethical consequences of doing fMRI scans on dogs, even one that is his own pet. Even more eye-opening is Bern’s view of science students as being under served in K-12 classes due to teaching methods of rote memorization, instead of in the inquisitive, trial-and-error approaches of professional scientists.
But most importantly, Bern’s work has unleashed new answers on why dogs love us so endearingly. His conclusions do not by any means form a statistically significant answers, but certainly do make progress in proposing that dogs do have love for us beyond just seeing us as a source of food.
Details in the book provide fascinating theories and plenty of potential directions for future research.
Burns wrote that humans, even with miraculous minds and the ability to think abstractly, “are still slaves to our emotions, which dogs will pick up on and resonate with. And the most powerful emotion of all is love.”
Not everyone likes dogs, but those of us who do, have an immediate conversation starter that only other dog lovers understand. A typical response from a dog owner about coming home to Toto is “no matter what I do, or how horrible the day went, I know my dog will love me,” and that sentiment is echoed by all dog lovers, like me.
Sometimes I wonder how I can be more simple hearted, content and relaxed like my dog. I go out in the yard, feel the crisp November breeze sun warming my neck, and feel the thumping of the tail wagging, and the delighted chase around me. Then if my dog’s thirst and hunger is satisfied, the romping plays starts, and he grabs a piece of bark, plastic bottle, ball or toy between his jaws.
George Romanes wrote that “the emotional life of the dog is highly developed, more highly, indeed, than that of any other animal.” When dogs know they are in trouble, it’s all over their face, like the time my dog – a German Shepherd named Smoky – jerked the leash from my hand and ran faster than a bullet somewhere up the immediate neighbor’s yard out of sight before I could breathe to say his name. That run-away doggy was going to pay, I decided, as I went around the street, and saw him, sure enough, with his leash wrapped around a tree, tangled, but happily visiting his favorite neighborhood dogs. I stood there and just stared with my aggravation fuming from my face, and decided just to leave him there, stuck, until I cooled off. Alas, sooner than I would have ever expected, he had arrived home, struggling to get free from some branches in our wood pile, sheepishly panting, as if saying, “I know, it’s my bad.” It was such a happy sight to have the dog home. All I did was greet him, and he looked so pitifully guilty, that I had to laugh, which made the day happy once again.
In the book Dogs Never Lie About Love, Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs, it discussed the mystery of how humans and dogs can understand one another’s emotional responses. It is not a new phenomenon about dogs that we’re on the track to answering, but instead, the reasons why they love us unleashes questions, and more importantly, how they love us gives us joys.
By Danelle Cheney