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Does Your Dog Really Love You?

Dogs display an evolved need for close emotional ties.

Key points

  • Some behaviorists believe that a dog's apparent affection for a person is motivated by its self-interest rather than real love.
  • Dogs and humans share the same hormonal and brain mechanisms which support the emotion of love.
  • A case history shows how a dog faced its greatest fear, apparently because of love for a human companion.
Alexandr Podvalny/Pexels
Source: Alexandr Podvalny/Pexels

If you want to cause a commotion in any psychology department or any other place where animal and human behavior is studied, all you have to do is step out into the hall and announce that your dog loves you. Skeptics and critics, as well as some ardent supporters, will pour into the corridor to argue the pros and cons of that statement.

Among the skeptics, you will find some people who are actually quite fond of dogs, like Jon Katz, author of Talking to Animals. Katz says that dogs form strong attachments to people, but they don’t have feelings of love. He says that they “trick us into thinking that they love us.” Dogs, according to Katz, have evolved to respond to people who feed them and give them attention.

Fred Metzger of Pennsylvania State University agrees, claiming that dogs make “investments” in human beings because they have something to gain by acting as if they love people.

A Case History

There seem to be so many instances in which the simplest explanation is that a dog is demonstrating love for humans. Take the story of Rocky and Rita from the Finger Lakes region of New York State, near Rochester. Rocky was a solid, 65-pound Boxer. At the time of this incident, Rocky was 3 years old, and Rita, his human companion, was 11. Rocky had been given to Rita when he was 10 weeks old, and she immediately bonded with him, teaching him basic commands and letting him sleep on her bed. Whenever she was not in school, the two were together and within touching distance. The family would often fondly refer to the pair as “R and R.”

Rita was relatively timid and shy, and as Rocky grew, he brought her a sense of security. When encountering strangers, Rocky would often deliberately stand in front of Rita as a sort of protective barrier. He seemed fearless.

Once when Rita was about to enter a store, two large men dressed like bikers burst out of the door, yelling at the shopkeeper and nearly knocking Rita over. Rocky rushed forward, putting himself between the frightened girl and the two threatening men. He braced himself and gave a low rumbling growl that carried such menace that the men backed off and gave the child and her guardian a wide berth.

There was, however, one flaw in Rocky’s armor—a fear of water so extreme that it was almost pathological. Boxers are not strong swimmers and are often shy of the water, but Rocky’s fears stemmed from his puppyhood when, at the age of 7 weeks, he was sold to a family with an adolescent boy who had emotional problems. In a jealous rage, the boy put the puppy in a pillowcase, knotted the top, and threw it into a lake. Fortunately, the boy’s father saw what happened and managed to retrieve the terrified puppy before he drowned. He scolded the boy, but the next day, the horrified parent saw his son standing waist-deep in the lake, trying to drown the struggling puppy by holding him underwater. This time, Rocky was rescued and returned to the breeder for the dog’s own safety.

These early traumas made water the only thing that Rocky truly feared. When he came close to a body of water, he would pull back, distressed. When Rita would go swimming in the lake, he would pace along the shore, trembling and whimpering. He would watch her intently and would not relax until she returned to dry land.

An Act of Love

One late afternoon, Rita’s mother took R and R to an upscale shopping area located along the edge of a lake. It featured a short wooden boardwalk that was built along the shore over a sharp embankment that was 20 or 30 feet above the surface of the water. Rita was clomping along the boardwalk, enjoying the way the sounds of her footsteps were amplified by the wooden structure, when a boy on a bicycle skidded on the damp wooden surface, hitting Rita at an angle that propelled her through the open section below the lowest guard rail. She let out a shriek of pain and fear as she hurtled outward, hitting the water face-down and then floating there unmoving.

Rita’s mother was at the entrance of a store a hundred feet or so away. She rushed to the railing shouting for help. Rocky was already there, looking at the water, trembling in fear, and making sounds that seemed to be a combination of barks, whimpers, and yelps all rolled into one.

We can never know what went through that dog’s mind as he stood looking at the water—the one thing that truly terrified him and that had nearly taken his life twice. Now here was a frightening body of water that seemed about to harm his little mistress. Whatever he was thinking, his love for Rita seemed to overpower his fear, and Rocky crawled through the same open space in the rail and leaped forward and into the water.

One can thank the genetic programming that allowed the dog to swim without any prior practice, and he immediately went to Rita and grabbed her by a shoulder strap on her dress. This caused her to roll over so that her face was out of the water, and she gagged and coughed. Despite her dazed state, she reached out and managed to cinch her hand in Rocky’s collar while the dog struggled to swim toward the shore. Fortunately, the water was calm, and they were not far from shore.

In a few moments, Rocky reached a depth where his feet were on solid ground. With great effort, he dragged Rita until her head was completely out of the water and then stood beside her, licking her face while he continued to tremble and whine. It would be several minutes before human rescuers would make it down the steep rocky embankment; had it not been for Rocky, they surely would have arrived too late.

Rita and her family believe that it was only the big dog’s love for the little girl that caused him to take what he must have considered a life-threatening action. This clearly casts doubt on the theories of Katz and Metzger, which insist that dogs don’t love us but act only out of self-interest. Why should Rocky behave in a way that he certainly felt would risk his life? Surely, if he was evaluating the costs and benefits of his actions, then he would have known that, even in Rita’s absence, the rest of the family would be around to feed him and take care of his needs.

The Mechanisms of Love

Marc Bekoff, a behavioral biologist at the University of Colorado, has a different interpretation. He notes that dogs are social animals, and emotions keep the social group together, motivating individuals to protect and support each other. Bekoff concludes that “strong emotion is one of the foundations of social behavior and the basis of the connection between individuals in any social group, whether a pack, a family, or just a couple in love.”

Recent research has even identified some of the chemicals associated with feelings of love in humans. These include hormones such as oxytocin, which seems to help people form emotional bonds with each other. Both dogs and people produce oxytocin.

Research using brain scans (fMRI) shows that the same parts of the brain in a dog and human are activated when a mother views a picture of her child and when a dog hears the voice of his owner. If dogs, as social animals, have an evolutionary need for close emotional ties, and they have the chemical and brain mechanisms associated with loving, it makes sense to assume that they are capable of love, as we are.

Rocky’s fear of the water was absolute and never did abate. He continued to avoid it for the rest of his life, and no one ever saw him so much as place a foot in the lake again. He braved the water just once, for Rita—for love.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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Katz, J (2017). Talking To Animals: How You Can Understand Animals and They Can Understand You. New York: Simon & Schuster

Bekoff, M, Allen, C & Burghardt, GM (2002). The cognitive animal: Empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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