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Does Your Dog Love You Back?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Tales of hearts given and not returned are as old as time itself, and but tales of non-reciprocal interspecies love are perhaps less common. The unrequited love between Bella and Jacob aside, there exists a sizable group of non-fictional people who find love with non-human animals: dog owners.

You love your dog. Does your dog love you back? Is the love that an owner feels for her dog reciprocated? That’s the question that a group of Swedish and Danish researchers wanted to answer.

Dogs are highly attuned to human social cues. They don’t just enjoy a symbiotic relationship with us; they are our social partners. So if an owner has a positive view of her relationship with her dog, perhaps a higher frequency of positive interactions will occur between the two, leading the dog to reciprocally perceive a close relationship with its owner. At least, that’s the hypothesis.

Twenty dog-owner pairs participated in the study. The humans each completed a questionnaire called the Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS) which was designed to evaluate the strength of the relationship from the perspective of the owner. The MDORS contains 28 items which are divided into three sub-scales. The first assesses the nature of the dog-owner interactions (“How often do you hug your dog?”), the second reflects the emotional closeness that the owner feels towards his or her dog (“I wish my dog and I never had to be apart”), and the third concerns the perceived investment required to care for a dog (“My dog costs too much money”).

The dogs were thrust into a modified version of the Ainsworth “Strange Situation” procedure, a clever experiment originally designed to measure the strength of human parent-child relationships. Since it measures both proximity-seeking behavior and assesses the sense of security the owner’s presence might provide the dog, and since the owner-dog relationship has often been compared by analogy to the parent-child relationship, the strange situation has been increasingly used quite effectively to understand the human-canine bond. Indeed, it’s not such a strange comparison to make. Owners who reported stronger relationships with their dogs also had more oxytocin in their urine.

The doggy version of the strange situation begins with the owner sitting in a chair ignoring her dog. After a few minutes, a stranger comes into the room and, ignoring the dog, talks to the owner. The stranger attempts to play with the dog, and then the owner quietly leaves the room. The stranger continues to engage the dog in play, and then leaves the room, leaving the dog alone. The owner returns, greets the dog, and begins ignoring it again. The stranger returns, greets the dog, and ignores it as well. Finally, the owner leaves a second time.

When conducted with human toddlers, the slightly distressing nature of the strange situation – being left alone, having to engage with a stranger – activates an innate, adaptive system that motivates the child to seek the proximity of their caregiver. By carefully observing the child and weighing his comfort-seeking behaviors against his more independent exploration behaviors, researchers can determine whether or not the child is “securely attached” to mom or to dad.

The researchers found, predictably, that dogs were more likely to initiate physical contact with their owners if their owners’ self reports reflected a high level of interaction with their dogs. And owners who reported a high level of interaction with their dogs had dogs who were less likely to play independently. In a human toddler, we might say that the lack of independent exploration reflects some form of insecure attachment but for dogs it probably represents a consequence of positive reinforcement for interacting with their owners.

A more complete understanding of dog-owner relationships comes from looking not at the dog or owner in isolation, but as a unit. This study marks one of the first attempts to scientifically probe the relationship between dogs’ perception of their bond with their owners, and owners’ perceptions of their bond with their dogs.

And here’s the bad news for all those dog lovers who are just certain that Fluffy loves them back. There was no correlation between the “perceived emotional closeness” subscale of the MDORS questionnaire and the dogs’ behavior in the strange situation. The researchers put it bluntly, writing, “there was no evidence to support the view that because a person has a strong emotional bond to their dog, their dog is similarly attached to them.”

Jacob loved Bella, but Bella chose Edward. As with paranormal teenage romance novels, so too with life. You can not simply love a dog so much that it will be forced to love you back.

Rehn T., Lindholm U., Keeling L. & Forkman B. (2013). I like my dog, does my dog like me?, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, DOI:

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Rudy0430 12:26 am 11/22/2013

    Pretty much like my autistic son. I adore the man (21 yrs old), but to him I’m quite sure that I’m just a caregiver. The kicker … it doesn’t matter… to feel strong love for someone is reward in itself.

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  2. 2. Jones the Robert 6:40 am 11/22/2013

    Dogs have been known to die protecting their owners or handlers.

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  3. 3. babby 9:27 am 11/22/2013

    Don’t know if it’s possible to actually measure doggie love, I just know what I see. And when I see a dog’s attachment to a particular person, I read between the lines.

    Whether it is that the dog simply perceives his owner as the source of food & comfort or if it is truly an affair of the heart is not completely knowable.

    What I do know is that my little 14-pound Pekingese growled very menacingly at a laundromat patron many years ago — this little dog usually smoozed the room in search of new friends (& got ‘em by golly; he was a charmer), but he took an instant dislike to that particular man.

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  4. 4. tuned 11:33 am 11/22/2013

    Pro’lly depends on how they are treated, and their individual disposition.
    Animals are well known to commit acts of altruism, risking and sacrificing their lives for others including humans.
    Maybe the definition of love does not necessarily depend on “liking”?

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  5. 5. toffeenose16 4:07 pm 11/22/2013

    Obviously written by a cat lover ;)

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  6. 6. Jason G. Goldman in reply to Jason G. Goldman 4:27 pm 11/22/2013

    toffeenose16: Heh, actually I am a dog lover (quite allergic to cats, in fact).

    And some of the other comments: I’m not saying your dog doesn’t feel affection towards you. Dog-owner relationships can be good for the dogs, and they can be good for the owners. What I am saying, what the research suggests, is that as a group, there is not a statistical correlation between your love for your dog and your dog’s love for you. That means that there are some relationships that are bidirectional and some that are not. Just like any other kind of relationship, in fact. That makes dog-owner relationships actually quite similar to other types of human-human relationships, not all that different at all.

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  7. 7. brublr 6:20 pm 11/22/2013

    While sitting at the computer stroking my cat w/ my left hand, the ball of my right forfinger suddenly felt her paw rest atop it. I looked down to see her looking back up in my eyes whereupon she gave me a riff of a half dozen squeezes with her claws. Maybe she was saying,’I love you’, but possibly she was saying,’you really should trim that mustache more often.’

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  8. 8. yasulh 11:48 pm 11/23/2013

    The problem here, and with any study in this area, is how do you measure the construct of love – particularly in species that cannot speak to describe emotions and thoughts? The Strange Situation test is not designed to measure this. It is only a measure of attachment.

    An animal, whether human or otherwise, is bound to have some level of attachment to a caregiver, even if that attachment is dysfunctional. We can’t really say this is the same thing as love. I am attached to my smartphone. I get anxious if I leave home without it. I get comfort from having access to the information on it, particularly in strange situations. But, I don’t love it.

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  9. 9. MissMarnie 2:06 pm 11/24/2013

    There are two problems I can see with this experiment. One issue is assuming that an adult dog’s innate response to this situation reflect the same thing that a human baby’s response would mean. Babies are more helpless and less independent than both adult humans and dogs. If you tried that experiment on adult humans, you would be judging their intro/extroversion more than their love for the other person. I’m pretty shy is social situations. If the one person I know, leaves, I’ll notice more and be more distraught over the situation. That doesn’t mean I love that person more than someone who loves talking to new people, it just means I’m more uncomfortable without someone I know around to take the pressure off of me to be social.

    The second issue is that this experiment can only test dogs who have a particular disposition to start with. I have three rescues and one wasn’t socialized as a puppy and has problems interacting with strange humans and dogs. If you put him through this test, he’d scream the minute his human walked out of the room and would grows and snap or shake in fear at the human who tried to play with him. I don’t think that means he loves his humans more than the really friendly playful dog who enjoys meeting and interacting with new people. I think that means that one dog is uncomfortable in situation X and another dog is comfortable in situation X. The first dog is probably worried this situation won’t end or he’ll lose control of it and the second dog is probably confident the situation will end and is enjoying it while it lasts.

    So it’s an interesting study but I think it’s a leap to say that it’s a barometer of whether and to what degree dogs love humans.

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  10. 10. BBV@Large 3:13 pm 11/27/2013

    It seems that my dog(a rescue) has learned from me to be social and loving. She spent her first year on the street and was initially NOT social and loving. She does experience noticeable separation anxiety in novel situations. I’m told its my fault.As much as I want to think she loves me; I don’t think she experiences love the way humans do. It does appear that I am the pack leader and we form a pack. She will defend me from large dogs; from behind my legs(terrier). Not the best way to deal with aggressive, large, dogs.

    [JGG: I think you're mostly right, but, for what it's worth, the "wolf pack theory" has been thoroughly debunked. It isn't true for dogs, and it isn't true for wolves.]

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  11. 11. gsmonks 6:17 pm 11/28/2013

    A lot of people are misreading this article. The article states, “there was no evidence to support the view that because a person has a strong emotional bond to their dog, their dog is similarly attached to them.” A lot of people are misinterpreting this to mean that dogs don’t love people back. What the article is saying is that dogs don’t AUTOMATICALLY love people back, based upon the human’s attachment to the dog; that for the dog to love the person back, there has to be a reciprocal dimension to their relationship.

    For example, some friends of mine have four little dogs they dote upon and love to pieces. The dogs are rushed to the vet at the slightest complaint, are taken regularly for a doggy shampoo ‘n’ haircut, are fed their favourite treats, and so on. BUT- when I visit their house, there’s the usual yelling and telling the dogs to “go lie down” and “behave” and “don’t jump up on people”. Beyond that, these people don’t realise that there is an emotional gulf between themselves and the canines they otherwise dote upon. They don’t pick their dogs up, ever, rarely pat them, seldom speak to them in a kindly tone of voice, and so on. In other words, these people love their dogs but their dogs don’t love them.

    But this does NOT mean that this is always the case. People who SHOW love for their dogs, that DIRECTLY and PHYSICALLY communicate their feelings and interact with their canine companions, in a way the dog can understand, those owners ARE loved by their dogs. THOSE are the dogs that will die for their people.

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