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A Valentine's smooch from your pooch

Original Publication Date: February 9, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Valentine's Day causes us to stop and reflect on our relationships and the love we share with family and friends.

Many now consider their pet a member of the family and share their love with them. That begs the question, do our pets love us the same way we love them or do they just snuggle to show appreciation for the food, shelter and care we provide?

Dogs can't talk so the question lingers, but recent scientific studies are beginning to provide answers.

One of the most exciting neuroimaging studies was performed by scientists at Emory University using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the neural responses of dogs to different smells. Dogs practically see with their noses so understanding how they process smell offers insight into their social behavior. Scientists worked with a handler to train dogs to lie still in an MRI. While being monitored, each dog was presented with smells including a hot dog, other dogs and people. Some of the dogs and people were familiar and others were not.

The dog brains seemed to prioritize their reactions and responded most markedly to the scent of humans over the aroma of other dogs and hot dogs. The scientists found that a whiff of a dog's owner, powerfully activated areas in the caudate nucleus or the "reward center" of the brain. That's nothing to sniff at.

A similar neuroimaging study performed at EotvosLorand University in Budapest compared the responses of dogs to different human and dog sounds.

The researchers found the brains of dogs and humans process emotional vocal sounds similarly. Dogs are apparently physically wired to pick up on subtle human mood changes. In other words, a dog truly knows if their owner is happy or sad by the tone of their voice.

So what does it mean when a dog licks their owner's cheek? Is that a doggie kiss? Dogs lick for many reasons. A mother licks her newborn pups to clean them and to stimulate them to eliminate. She also licks as a comfort behavior to establish a bond with her young.

Dogs lick to groom and some lick another as a gesture of goodwill or appeasement. Licking a human's face can actually be interpreted as a token of the dog's affection, respect or doggie love.

Research clearly indicates that dogs care about their owners. A dog prefers their owner's scent above all others, and they hear and empathize with mood changes reflected in his owner's voice. So when your happy dog wags their tail, invades your lap, hogs your bed, and slurps your face, are they saying they love you? There are no neuroimaging studies on the subject, but if your dog licks your face like a lollipop, you should probably consider it a Valentine smooch from your pooch.


Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at HolisticTouchTherapy.com.