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Dog-Human Relationships and the Five Love Languages

Gary Chapman's love languages can apply to dog-human relationships.

I recently learned about Gary Chapman's outstanding book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, and given my interests in dog-human relationships I immediately began thinking about how those love languages—acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation—apply to the ways in which we interact with canine (and other) companion animals. Focusing on dogs for the moment, two of the many misleading and uninformed myths with which we're constantly bombarded came to mind — namely, that dogs are unconditional lovers and we're their best friends. Neither is so.1,2

Part of the description of The 5 Love Languages reads: "Falling in love is easy. Staying in love—that’s the challenge. How can you keep your relationship fresh and growing amid the demands, conflicts, and just plain boredom of everyday life?" This question applies to all sorts of human-nonhuman animal (animal) relationships. Let me consider each of the five components in turn.

Acts of service. If you choose to add a dog to your life, you have to love them unconditionally, provide high-quality food, give them a good deal of physical and mental exercise, let them exercise their senses — especially their awesome noses, offer a safe place for them to rest and to sleep, and provide veterinary care when they need it. These are not substitutes for loving them and letting them know you do. If you can't do these and other things and give them the best life possible, you're not ready to take responsibility for another being, and that's just fine.

Gift-giving. Give your dog their favorite treat or toy, plenty of time to romp with their friends, opportunities to enjoy physical exercise and to exercise their senses, and some alone time if they need it (don't take it personally). It's okay to "spoil" them and honor their needs. They're totally dependent on you to enrich their lives and to give them all they need to thrive in their human-oriented world.

Physical touch. If your dog likes to be touched and hugged, do it. If not, don't. If they like to lean into you or snuggle, let them do it to their heart's content. Be sure to honor what they want, on their terms.

Quality time. All of the above can factor into increasing quality time with your dog. I used to let my dogs tell me what they wanted and even if I disagreed, I tried as hard as I could to let them determine what "quality" meant to them, and it varied individually and over time.

Words of affirmation. Let your dog know you love them. Of course, on occasion they'll upset you or make you wonder why in the world you took them in, but that's part of the ongoing dynamic of your relationship. Unfortunately, many people are "helicopter parents" who constantly control their dog's behavior by saying "No!", "Don't do that!", or "Stop doing that!" Dogs need to express their "dogness," even when they're doing dog-appropriate things we find disgusting or embarrassing.

Over the course of a few years, I collected data on patterns of scolding and praising. I discovered that dogs were reprimanded almost five times more than they were praised. Only rarely were dogs praised spontaneously when they weren't doing anything other than just walking around or hanging out and doing what comes naturally to them.

Don't hesitate to let your dog know they're "a good dog." I often find myself saying "good dog" just to be nice, when dogs are being nice to one another or to a human or when there's no apparent reason for the praise. Sometimes people ask me why I said it—perhaps they had missed something—and I told them I said it because giving praise and being nice and showing affection and love are okay even when a dog is just walking around or sniffing and not doing anything in particular. I also often praise dogs when they're playing fairly and allowing all of the players to frolic and have fun. It's possible that the data are skewed the way they are because some people told me that they don't offer praise just to be nice or don't say anything "when their dog is behaving appropriately."

It's important to balance scolding and praising when we talk with dogs in a human-dominated world. Scolding, especially incessant or misplaced reprimanding, can be stressful and add to the pressure with which many dogs live as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world.

Dog-human relationships are often asymmetric and one-sided, the sort that many of us would not tolerate with another human. Simply put, dogs want and need more freedom.

We impose a lot of demands on dogs and other companion animals, day in and day out. Balance in how we interact and talk with them is critical, as it is in human-human interactions. And, it's worth keeping in mind that many dogs would do well without us.

How do the 5 languages of love fit in for dog-human relationships?

A few people have asked me to rank Chapman's 5 languages of love for dog-human relationships, but I hesitate to do this mainly because I feel they're tightly interconnected and feed one another to a greater or lesser extent depending on context—who the dog is, who the human is, the nature of their on-going relationship, and what's happening at the moment for each of them. The same can be said for human-human relationships.

Dogs, humans, and dog-human relationships have their own personalities and dynamics, and things can change rapidly. So, for now, the Ven diagram I'd draw is an overlapping blend of all five, because each is integral, they're difficult to separate, and their relative contributions and importance for staying in love and keeping a relationship fresh and growing amid the demands, conflicts, and boredom of everyday life can change rapidly or slowly depending on the individuals who are involved.

Coda: Nothing is lost and much can be gained by letting your dog know and feel that you love them for who they are and are willing to work with them so they and you have the best lives possible. It's a win-win for all, and why bring a dog into your life—your home and heart—if you're not willing to be there for them unconditionally. We're their lifelines and they depend on us to give them all they need and then some.


I thank Dr. Laura Thompson for telling me about Chapman's book.

1) Bekoff, Marc, Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us?; _____. Dogs Aren't Hard-Wired "Love Muffins"; _____. Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?; _____. Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?

2) For more on myths about dogs, click here.

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

_____. For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise.

_____. Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths.

_____. Dog Smarts and Hearts: Distinguishing Facts From Myths.

_____. Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?

_____. Hugging a Dog Is Just Fine When Done With Great Care.

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019.

Pierce, Jessica. 6 Key Facts About How Dogs Think. (Yes, they love us. No, they don't love us unconditionally.)

_____ and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. Princeton University Press, 2021.

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