Podcast: Does your dog really love you?

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There is one question that every pet parent has asked themselves at least once: Does my dog really love me?

Sure, your dog wants to snuggle, and yes, your dog bounds to you when you enter the room. But is this love, or is it just because you feed them?

Animal behavioral scientist Dr. Clive D. L. Wynne asked himself the same question and decided to find the answer once and for all. With his findings, he wrote a book called “Dog is Love” which hopes to give pet parents the answer to what creates the bond between humans and animals.

“My own dog was the book’s inspiration,” says Wynne. “I went through a period where I was puzzling over what it is that makes dogs so unique in our world today, and [my dog] explained it to me. She is such a bundle of love and she is so affectionate. She changed my scientific thinking about dogs. Up until that point, people argued that dogs have a special intelligence, but it is actual about living in such close proximity with people.”

What is an animal behavioral scientist and how are the experiments performed?

Before we can understand the results, we first must understand what an animal behavioral scientist is and how the experiments were conducted. A behavioral scientist is any scientist who take an interest in behavior. Behavioral scientists can be interested in humans, insects, or animals.

“I get to cuddle puppies for a living,” says Wynne. “Behavioral scientists have been aware of dogs since the beginning of behavioral science – does the name Pavlov ring a bell? I started studying dogs in the mid 2000’s, about 15 years ago now, and I have never looked back.”

As a psychology professor who directs the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe, Wynne studies all aspects of the human-dog relationship.

“There is hardly anything about how dogs and humans thrive together that isn’t fascinating,” says Wynne. “We try and focus our efforts where we can do the most good. We probably spend three-quarters of our time, if not more, working with dogs in shelters or dogs who have difficulties in other ways. There are 80 million dogs in the US and 4 million of them will be sleeping in a shelter tonight — that’s 5 percent, which is a big fraction of the population.

If we understand the true nature of dogs, then we can understand how to give them a better life, including shelter dogs.”

How does behavioral science help shelter dogs?

Animal shelters are full of dogs who would make great pets, but who ultimately never get adopted. Rather than chocking it up to bad luck or past trauma, it is important to understand that there is actual a science behind why people choose the pets that they adopt.

“It is undeniably the case that there are dogs who come from horrible abuse and dogs who had a good life with their humans but went through a tragedy, who can create a new loving relationship with a new human family,” says Wynne. “What I started out being interested in is that when somebody comes to the shelter looking for a dog, what are the behaviors in a dog’s pattern that lead a person to want to adopt them, and what do they do that turns a human off?”

To find out the answer, Wynne’s team went to a shelter and made 60 second videos of each dog’s reaction when humans came to their kennel. On average, humans will only spend 60 seconds looking at a dog before they make a conclusion about adoptability, so they kept each video very short.

“We noted everything – barking, wagging tail, anything,” says Wynne. “Then we looked at shelter records to see which dogs got adopted quickly and which dogs were left alone in the pound for months on end. We did that with dogs in kennels and with dogs who were taken out and played with. So now we know what a dog should do to get adopted.”

With that knowledge, Wynne’s team went back to the shelter and studied how easily or inexpensively they could change the behaviors in dogs to help them become more readily adopted. Most dogs are in relatively impoverished shelters so there is no funding for an expert to come help them, so they had to think of inexpensive and easy ways to help them. By helping them change their behaviors, more dogs were able to be adopted.

The big question: Does my dog actually love me?

 The short answer is yes.

“Dogs have a capacity, desire, and success in forming strong bonds with people,” says Wynne.

Behavioral scientists have found that the connection between dogs and humans is very similar to the bond between a mother and an infant. In fact, to prove this, they used the same test that is used on human infants to detect a healthy parental bond. In the test, the mother and infant come into a new room together, and the child is happy in the unfamiliar room as long as the mother I present. The mother leaves the room, and the infant becomes distressed. The mother comes back and the infant is happy. Measuring the infant’s distress being left alone and happiness to be reunited, this provides a very simple way for psychologists to measure the strength of the bond between the child and his or her mother, which is called secure attachment. Now, scientists have taken this test and tried it on dogs. They have the dog come in with their pet parent and leave the dog alone for a bit and see how they are distressed and then when the parent is back, they perk up.

“What you find is that the results are very similar to what you see between mothers and their infants,” says Wynne. “The same kind of secure attachment shows up there, and there is no food in that experiment. That’s just a story about being with your person or being separated from your person, and just seeing how the separation causes distress and reunion causes happiness. You code it just the same way you would with a dog as with a child. You find that a dog is just as connected to their human as a dog is with their mother.”

Many people think that dogs only love their humans because their human is who feeds them, however, Wynne wants to debunk that myth.

“Some people think that dogs only love them because we feed them,” says Wynne. “It is what we call ‘cupboard love’ – but there have been some really interesting studies that show that dog love is much more interesting than that.”

One study conducted to debunk ‘cupboard love’ involved a simple test. Dogs were left in a house without food for eight hours. There were two doors, and behind one door was a bowl of food, and behind the other was their human. When both doors were opened at the same time, despite being hungry, the dogs chose their human every time. This proved that the human was more important than the food or the need to eat.

Because of evolution, dogs now show love and service to humans. It is truly unconditional love. A dog is looking to their human to lead and direct them and looks to us for stability in their lives.

“Dogs are looking to us,” says Wynne. “The idea of dominance has been misunderstood in the media, but when we talk about dominance we are really talking about leadership. Dogs love us, are looking up to us, and are looking to us to provide gentle leadership. Not vicious dominance, not jerking the leash and shock collars and prong collars and kicking. It is truly unconditional love.”

To read more about Wynne’s book, visit www.dogislovebook.com.

To learn more about CBD for dogs, visit www.angelaardolino.com.

Angela Ardolino is a holistic pet expert who has been caring for animals for over 20 years, and operates a rescue farm in Lutz, Florida. She is also the owner of  Beautify the Beast a natural pet salon and shop.  After getting her certificate in Medical Cannabis Biology and Therapeutic use from the University of Vermont School of Medicine, she founded CBD Dog Health to provide high quality, all-natural medical cannabis products designed specifically for pets. Angela has five dogs, plus 4-10 at any time that she is fostering or boarding; visit  www.angelaardolino.com for more information.

About Dr. Clive D. L. Wynne
The behavior of dogs and their wild relatives with Dr. Clive D. L. Wynne, Behavioral Scientist. Clive is a behavioral scientist with a fascination for dogs and their wild relatives. As a psychology professor who directs the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe, he is also the Director of Research at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, IN, and the author of Dog Is Love. Clive was born and raised on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. He studied at University College London and got his Ph.D. at Edinburgh University before setting off on his travels.