Dogs' are often described as a "man's best friend," and for good reason — early dogs assisted in protecting their human associates from danger. Today, dogs continue to provide us with companionship, emotional support and even help some of us get around when it's not so easy to do so on our own. But, do they act in such a way because they love us without conditions? Are dogs so loyal, in theory, to humankind because their love for us knows no limits?
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Unconditional love or non-judgment?
Too often, dogs are praised for loving us "unconditionally," but is this really true? That's not an easy question to answer. The term unconditional love is used widely by many to mean loving someone or something without strings attached, meaning offering love without expecting something in return. For centuries, domesticated dogs have relied on their human counterparts for food, shelter, and affection. Most likely, if you stopped feeding your dog, and one day gave them free will to do what they would, they would probably leave in search of food. They would not choose to stay due to their undying love and adoration for you.
A desirable trait that might more accurately describe dogs is "non-judgmental." After all, in our lowest moments, our dogs are there for us. Every time we come home, anytime we've had a fight with a partner or a bad day at work, our dogs are by our sides through tears, fights, and even strongly-worded emails sent way too late at night. When they say "dance like no one's watching," they don't include a dog, because they wouldn't judge your moves either way. They may, however, come with some conditions, namely: feed me, shelter me, and don't beat or abuse me.
What do dogs get out of it?
Dogs and humans do have a symbiotic, mutualistic relationship. But, the bonds they form with each other are not built only out of necessity, and they certainly aren't always maintained by it. To put it simply, dogs also love their humans, because it feels good. As social animals, a physical touch releases a hormone called oxytocin, otherwise known as the "love hormone." This same hormone is what allows babies to bond with their mothers after childbirth, and is also what makes sexual orgasm feel so enjoyable. Thanks to the release of this hormone, receiving pets or cuddles from their best friends and family members (us) is an experience that greatly improves a dog's quality of life, and they are often quick to return the favor.
A dog's brain even reacts to the smell of their familiar people in the same way that we react to images of the people we're in love with. The caudate nucleus is the part of the brain associated with memory, learning, emotions, relationships, and reward. One study showed that part of the brain lit up the most when a dog was offered a whiff of their beloved human over the scent of other dogs. This same thing happened to human participants when shown photos of their respective lovers. While it's questionable whether or not this proves dogs love us unconditionally, it does show us that we make our dogs happier than pretty much anything.
Building bonds with dogs
Anyone who has had a dog of their own or lived closely with one will tell you — there is no other bond like it. Part care-giving, part companion, part confidant, the relationships we have with our canine friends are irreplaceable. Plus, there are some things we can do to make that bond even stronger. The easiest way to become closer with your dog is to enjoy activities together, especially anything that your dog has positive associations with, like going for walks or hikes together, or a ride in the car (if they like it).
Dog owners can also teach their dogs commands, which not only requires them to listen to you for cues and rewards but also increases their self-esteem and healthy tail wags — making them feel better all around. Some dog breeds are even especially inclined to activities like agility courses or hunting, which is also done under the guidance of their human friends.
It's impossible to say whether dogs love us unconditionally at this time, however, there is no doubt that our dogs have the capacity to love us deeply. Petting and praise are great ways to build bonds with your dog, as is exercising, and engaging in any activity that yields a pleasure response from your canine.