The neuropsychology of dog love

For 30,000 years humans and dogs have lived together. Today, dogs are a fixture in almost 50% of American households. From the way dogs thump their tails, invade our laps, are delighted to see us whether it’s five minutes or five months away from them, take over our furniture, try to eat our food, and steal our pillows, it certainly seems like they love us back. They are family. 

The most direct dog brain-based evidence that they are genuinely devoted to humans comes from a neuroimaging study about odor processing in the dog brain. Animal cognition and animal behavior scientists at Emory University trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure their neural responses to the smell of people and dogs, both familiar and unknown. Because dogs navigate the world through their noses, the way they process smell offers a lot of potential insight into social behavior.

The scientists found that dog owners’ aroma actually sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains, which is called the caudate nucleus, in both humans and dogs. Of all the smells to were given to take in, dogs actually prioritized the hint of their humans over anything or anyone else.

The study showed marked similarities in the way dog and human brains process emotionally laden vocal sounds. Researchers found that happy sounds in particular light up the auditory cortex in both species. Dogs were also affected by angry tones, just like humans. This speaks to the uniquely strong communication system underlying the dog-human bond.

Dogs don’t just seem to pick up on our mood changes, their brains are actually physically wired to pick up on them. Dogs are the only non-primate animal to look people in the eyes. This is a unique behavior between dogs and humans, dogs seek out eye contact from people, but NOT their biological dog parents.

People, especially women, also reciprocate dogs’ strong positive feelings. In a study published in October 2014, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers measured human brain activity in response to photos of dogs and children. Study participants were women who’d had dogs and babies for at least two years. Both types of photos sparked virtually equal activity in brain regions associated with emotion, affiliation, visual processing, and social interaction. Basically, both furry and non furry babies seem to make us equally happy.

An interesting finding, and relevant to my work as a clinical/neuro psychologist, is a recent study that revealed that teenage girls often use their canine companions as their home therapist, or confidant. They often speak about personal matters to their dogs. My dog friendly office allows children and teens to bring their dogs with them to the session, especially if they are feeling anxious or worried. I called them co therapists.

Research stats from the canine cognition center, department of psychology, Yale University; https://doglab.yale.edu/

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