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Does my dog love me? Two studies hint at the complicated answer

“Dogs typically are attached to their owners in the same way that an infant is to its parent.”

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Maybe the thought has struck you in the middle of the night, making you break into a cold sweat as your blood runs icy: Does my dog love food more than me?

The short answer, according to the latest science, is “sort of.” But by delving into the details of two of the most recent discoveries about pet dogs and their canine cousins, wolves, dog owners can breathe a sigh of relief.

Your dog might love food, but a deep analysis of its cognitive abilities reveals it still needs you — perhaps even as much as you need it.

Why dogs bond with humans

This is a reasonable question for any pet owner. For tens of thousands of years humans have domesticated dogs, slowly shifting our canine companions away from the rugged coyotes and wolves we see in the wild and to become the pugs, pointers, and poodles we love.

But the change isn’t just an aesthetic one — dog cognitive ability has gotten much more sophisticated and nuanced over time, too.

Fresh evidence for dogs’ keen behavior skills comes from a study published this week in the journal Current Biology. In this study, scientists at Duke University compared how 44 dog pups and 37 wolf pups responded to humans’ social cues.

Importantly, the wolf pups were raised by humans and even slept in their beds at night. The dog pups, by contrast, stayed with their mother and littermates and has less human contact.

In the study, dog trainers presented both wolf and dog pups with games and puzzles, one of which involved choosing a bowl that was hiding a treat. The trainers gave the pups verbal and visual cues to help them find the right bowl.

The dog puppies were far more likely than the wolf pups to find the treat, indicating they’d absorbed information better. Dog puppies were also 30 times more likely to approach a human than a wolf puppy was — even though the wolves were raised in human homes.

All this is to say that dogs have been bred selectively for genes that make them friendlier toward humans than wolves — and to enable them to understand our linguistic clues and physical gestures. Wolves can share these traits, but the biological drive to be a man’s best friend is not nearly as strong in these wild creatures.

While love is a subjective emotion, what’s clear to scientists is dogs definitely have an attachment bond with their humans — like infants do with parents.Shutterstock

Does my dog love me?

Jim McGetrick, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, studies cognition abilities in domestic dogs and cooperation behavior. He has some potentially bad news for you: Your dog cares about you, but as for love? Not so clear-cut.

“I would say the jury is out on the question of love,” McGetrick tells Inverse.

“What we do know is there is an attachment bond there,” he continues. “That’s one of the most salient features of the relationship.”

In fact, the attachment bond a dog forms with its human is as strong as the attachment between a human infant and its parent. So, dog moms and dads, when you talk about your fur baby, there’s a little more truth to that moniker than you might think.

But just like with human infants, a dog’s attachment to its owner is also partially a question of need more than love.

“The owner is crucial for the dog,” McGetrick says. “It’s not the case that the dog can give or take their owner.”

The owner is pivotal to the dog’s health. When the dog confronts an unfamiliar person, who do they look to for cues on if this is a friend? When your dog is scared, who do they go running to for protection?

Dogs even feel more confident in exploring their surroundings if their owner is nearby, McGetrick says.

Do dogs like it when you talk to them?

If you talk to your dog like it’s a little baby, you’re doing it right.

Talking to your dog can strengthen that attachment bond. Studies have found good evidence that dogs enjoy and benefit from all that cooing — just like a human infant.

The mere presence of a human voice can comfort dogs. McGetrick says some shelters will even play audiobooks to anxious pups. The dogs that listened to human voices regularly were better rested and slept more than dogs in shelters that did not play audiobooks, indicating that the sound of a voice might relax them. Audiobooks even outperformed music at relaxing pups.

Hannah Salomons, who is a grad student at Duke University, was part of the team behind the new Current Biology paper on dogs and wolves’ social abilities. She tells Inverse that dogs like hearing a human voice because it is inherently communicative — not just pleasing to the ear.

“Previous studies have shown that getting the dog's attention verbally lets them know that you’re talking to them, and you’re meaning to give them information,” she says. On the other hand, trying to get their attention with a sound, such as a clap, often doesn’t do the job.

Teaching your dog to talk to you is another story.

There’s another important element to the dog-human relationship beyond food: play.Shutterstock

How do dogs show affection?

Dog owners say with certainty that even the way a dog looks at them is a sign of affection, but there are also more measurable signs that your pet cares about you.

Some of the most common ways a dog shows affection to its owner include:

  • Wagging its tail when it sees or hears its owner
  • Wanting its owner to touch it
  • Licking
  • Staying physically close to its owner
  • Bringing toys or other items to its owner

A key difference between wolves and dogs is that dogs are far more times more likely to interact with humans. According to Salomons’ research, dogs interact with humans thirty times more than do wolves, even if they were raised with less human contact than the wolves.

Do dogs love food more than me?

If you have a dog, then you might agree that dinner time is perhaps better described as feeding frenzy time. Dogs love food on a par with only the most passionate human gourmands. They will sit, roll over, give you a paw, and if all else fails, raid the garbage to get as much food as they possibly can. Even when it might poison them, they will often try to eat it. Which begs the question: Do dogs love food more than humans?

McGetrick has put this question to the test. In new research published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, McGetrick and his team describe an experiment in which a pet dog encountered two unfamiliar humans. One human helped the dog access food in a dispenser. The other did not.

Later, when the dog encountered these humans again, it showed neither negative nor positive reactions to either person. And, when given the opportunity to repay the favor to the generous human, it chose not to. This result is interesting because dogs do share food with other dogs in a reciprocal manner — you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Food can be particularly important in the beginning stages of a dog-human relationship. Feeding a dog by hand establishes contact, bringing the human and pup physically closer. The dog may begin to trust a person who provides food or see them as a source of security.

But as dogs bond with their humans, their owners become more than a food dispenser to them.

Just because your dog doesn’t want to share its food with you doesn’t mean it loves you less than the food. McGetrick chalks this up in part to the species difference. Dogs have been shown to share their food with other dogs, so why not reciprocate with humans?

“It is possible to argue that dogs don’t typically feed humans. So for them being in a context where they have to feed a human that could be just completely unusual for them,” McGetrick points out.

Food might even be a little overrated, McGetrick says. In addition to nourishment, humans offer dogs playtime and companionship.

“It’s really important to them,” he says.

The internet may be full of videos of dogs sharing other creature comforts with humans, so it’s easy to ascribe human qualities like empathy to dogs, but scientifically there’s still not a ton of data.

“Anecdotes certainly have a lot of potential to be overinterpreted,” says McGetrick.

All of which is to say that your dog isn’t only staying with you because you’re the one who feeds it. After all, Scooby-Doo’s love of Scooby Snacks doesn’t trump his love for Shaggy.

Does my dog know I love it?

Science has established there is a biological basis for the companionship you feel with your dog, but as to whether or not it knows you love it, that is hard to answer, McGetrick says.

Again, this isn’t a cause for alarm. After all, dogs likely don’t contemplate the concept of love in the same way humans do. Once again, it’s all about the attachment bond. This attachment transcends the wolf-dog dichotomy and is the basis of our relationship with these creatures.

Salomons says that the bond formed between wolf pups and their human foster parents at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota is a case in point.

“I think if you ask [the foster parents], they would say that they love the wolves and the wolves love them just as deeply as any dogs that they’ve raised as well.”

Just as a dog might, for example, the wolf pups looked to their human fosters for comfort and security, she says.

But at the end of the day, does your dog know bone-deep that you’s do absolutely anything for it?

“I think so,” says Salomons.

Salomons is speaking about dogs in general here, but for her, it gets personal when she considers her own rescue dog, Woozle.

“I’m just gonna choose to believe that my dog knows that I love her.”

While talking to dogs is important, actions speak louder than words. So if you’re ever doubting whether your dog feels the love, play with it or give it a cuddle — we promise you will feel better.

Abstract 1: Although we know that dogs evolved from wolves, it remains unclear how domestication affected dog cognition. One hypothesis suggests dog domestication altered social maturation by a process of selecting for an attraction to humans.1, 2, 3 Under this account, dogs became more flexible in using inherited skills to cooperatively communicate with a new social partner that was previously feared and expressed these unusual social skills early in development.4, 5, 6 Here, we compare dog (n = 44) and wolf (n = 37) puppies, 5–18 weeks old, on a battery of temperament and cognition tasks. We find that dog puppies are more attracted to humans, read human gestures more skillfully, and make more eye contact with humans than wolf puppies. The two species are similarly attracted to familiar objects and perform similarly on non-social measures of memory and inhibitory control. These results are consistent with the idea that domestication enhanced the cooperative-communicative abilities of dogs as selection for attraction to humans altered social maturation.
Abstract 2: Domestic dogs have been shown to reciprocate help received from conspecifics in food-giving tasks. However, it is not yet known whether dogs also reciprocate help received from humans. Here, we investigated whether dogs reciprocate the receipt of food from humans. In an experience phase, subjects encountered a helpful human who provided them with food by activating a food dispenser, and an unhelpful human who did not provide them with food. Subjects later had the opportunity to return food to each human type, in a test phase, via the same mechanism. In addition, a free interaction session was conducted in which the subject was free to interact with its owner and with whichever human partner it had encountered on that day. Two studies were carried out, which differed in the complexity of the experience phase and the time lag between the experience phase and test phase. Subjects did not reciprocate the receipt of food in either study. Furthermore, no difference was observed in the duration subjects spent in proximity to, or the latency to approach, the two human partners. Although our results suggest that dogs do not reciprocate help received from humans, they also suggest that the dogs did not recognize the cooperative or uncooperative act of the humans during the experience phase. It is plausible that aspects of the experimental design hindered the emergence of any potential reciprocity. However, it is also possible that dogs are simply not prosocial towards humans in food-giving contexts.
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