My husband and I recently adopted a rescue puppy—a Husky- Labrador mix who had been left at a shelter in Mississippi. We named him River, but not because he came from Mississippi or because he was half Labrador (a water dog). Instead, it was because I once read about jazz musicians who used the word “river” after they got into a disagreement and then tried to make things right. One musician would ask, “River?” and if everything was good, i.e., flowing just fine, the other would answer, “River.”
We named our new puppy River because he just goes with the flow and never overreacts to anything. When other dogs engage in barking frenzies, he remains quiet. When we encounter cars, bikes and other distractions on our walks, he stays calm. River also seems to like everyone he meets—equally. Although he greets us with a wagging tail, invites us to play with him and naps next to us, River’s laid-back personality sometimes feels a bit aloof compared to our previous dog who expressed himself with more exuberance. So during our first few weeks with him, we found ourselves asking each other, “Do you think River loves us?”
Wondering about River’s feelings inspired me to google the question “Does my dog love me?” The search produced 2,240,000,000 results. Clearly, lots of other people had asked themselves the same thing. But why would so many people question their dogs’ capacity for love when most dogs demonstrate it so enthusiastically? Was it because we humans are the insecure, needy partners in the relationship? Or do too many of us still question the emotional capacity of nonhuman animals?
Until fairly recently, the scientific community denied emotions in animals, but now scientists are finally acknowledging that animals can feel fear, pleasure, frustration and other emotions. That said, it is still too big a leap for most scientists to allow for the possibility that animals feel…the “L word.” However, one scientist who has openly taken that leap is canine behaviorist Clive Wynne, the founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University and the author of Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You.
In his book, Wynne explains that he started studying the canine capacity for love because the prevailing theory about what makes dogs so special—cognitive abilities that enable them to understand humans better than other animals—didn’t ring true. Wynne doesn’t deny that dogs have an amazing ability to read us, but he points out that other animals have this ability, too. So Wynne began to consider that dogs have an entirely different kind of talent that sets them apart. After considerable research, he concluded that what distinguishes dogs from other animals is their extraordinary capacity to form affectionate relationships with members of other species. It wasn’t “their smarts, but their hearts” that makes dogs exceptional. Wynne describes the intensity of this canine capacity as being, “so great that, if we saw it in one of our own kind, we would consider it quite strange—pathological even.” When discussing this unique canine ability with other scientists, Wynne uses terms like “hyper- sociability” and “exaggerated gregariousness,” but Wynne sees no reason not to call it as he sees it: love.
Skeptics have long asserted that dogs behave lovingly toward humans only in order to seduce us into caring for them. However, research suggests that a dog’s capacity to love is not just wishful thinking on our part. Studies show that the reward center in a dog’s brain lights up more when they see their favorite human than when they see sausages. Oxytocin, the hormone that plays a role in human love, plays a role in dog love, too. After dogs and people interact with each other affectionately, oxytocin levels go up in both species. And genetic studies show that specific genes responsible for hypersocial human behavior also exist in dogs.
Wynne believes that acknowledging the canine capacity for love is the only way to truly understand dogs. Even more importantly, he asserts that the way dogs are wired for love has implications for how we treat them. We need to return their love because they need to be loved as much as they need food and exercise. Dogs don’t just have an exceptional innate capacity to love, they also have an innate need to be loved.
Which brings me back to River. As a rescue dog, he didn’t start out in a stable home. He was abandoned at a shelter in Mississippi, saved by a rescue organization, transported to New England, and eventually adopted by us. River missed out on having a consistent person or family to bond with during his first few months, so perhaps he’s a little aloof because he is a little unsure of whether he’ll be abandoned again. But now River is with us, and it’s our job—and joy—to love him. Because he is a dog, he will no doubt love us back.
And as Wynne wrote, “to be loved by a dog is a great privilege, perhaps one of the finest in human life.”