Science proves that your dog's wagging tail means what you think it means: she loves you!
Did you hear the news? Dogs love us. This came as no surprise to most dog people that I know, but it’s significant both because science is now confirming our long-held impression and because it will eventually require us to reconsider our standards of humane treatment of our canine friends.
The scientist behind this story is Gregory Berns. His big idea was to use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains of dogs when they are exposed to a variety of stimuli. He found that a particular area of the brain responds (or lights up) when certain stimuli are presented; this same area does not light up when other stimuli are presented.
This area of the brain, incidentally, is called the caudate nucleus. Berns explains that in humans “the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money.” Brain activity in this area consistently increases when subjects are presented with rewards.
Experiments with dogs confirm that the idea of hot dogs (dogs are trained to recognize a hand signal meaning “hot dog”) as well as the scent of a familiar person or pet are all considered rewards to dogs. Dogs seem to have a similar, pleasant anticipatory feeling (a dopamine rush) when they think about their favorite person, animal pal, or food. Other more neutral signs and scents just don’t produce the same reaction.
This suggests that dogs really are excited to see us. Their emotional response to us is genuine. They love us for more than our food-distributing capability.
What are we going to do with this information?
Can we continue to treat dogs as commodities to buy and sell when we now have proof of their emotional lives? Puppy mills, in particular, seem even more heinous when we consider the misery that irresponsible breeders inflict upon female dogs made to live in squalor and bear litter after litter. Although these dogs are capable of happiness, they will have none in their entire lifetimes.
On a more personal level, doesn't learning about this research make you want to spend more time every day making your dog(s) happy? I do! Now that I know for sure that their happiness is like mine, I want to generate more of that feeling for both of us. That means turning off the computer and spending more time in the moment -- playing, walking, and snuggling with my canine best friends.
You can read more about this research (and even watch a video about how Berns trained dogs to tolerate the MRI machine) at this link.