Your Dog Really May Love You, According to Neuroscience

It's one of those dumb arguments I'm sure you've had before: Do pets really bond with their owners? Does your dog genuinely love you in particular, or would he quickly love another who filled his food bowl twice a day and brought home the squeaky toys? Well, score one for emotionally-needy pet owners: Brain scans suggests dogs really may experience love and affection.

In a study from Georgia's Emory University, more than dozen dogs underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans. Using the MRIs, "we can really begin to understand what a dog is thinking rather than infer it from their behavior," lead researcher Gregory Berns said. When the scientists indicated to dogs that they were about to receive a snack, the same parts of the brain associated with positive emotions in humans lit up in the dogs' brains.

So, okay, dogs like food. How does this show they love us? Berns — author of 2013's How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain — argues that the similar brain area activation in dogs and humans shows dogs do empathize with human emotions. That seems like a bit of a stretch? Berns plans to take the research further by doing doggie brain scans with treats offered by strangers and machines.

"If, as many scientists have argued in the past, it is all simply about [getting] food for dogs then the reaction in their brains would be the same no matter who or what is offering them the food," he told the Daily Mail. "We hope to show that they love us for things far beyond food, basically the same things that humans love us for, like social comfort and social bonds."

For now, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of information toward Berns' dogs-love-us hypothesis — and it doesn't seem his book holds many clues, either. Here's what one Amazon reviewer wrote about How Dogs Love Us:

The author writes very well, obviously cares about dogs, and can be quite entertaining in writing about them, but I just wasn't that interested in so much explanation of the preparations and methods used to get dogs to cooperate for MRIs. I wanted to read mainly about the supposed findings: how dogs love us and the decoding of their brains. The information on that seemed relatively scant and not all that satisfying, about a long article's worth instead of a whole book's worth. I think this approach will appeal most to those interested in the nuts and bolts of scientific research and training dogs rather than to dog lovers who crave detailed information about their pets' inner worlds.