You’ve seen the T-shirts (or own one yourself) that say “I’d rather be with my dog,” and it’s funny because, well, it’s true. The bond we share with our dogs is special. It’s unlike even our closest human-to-human connections—to the point where you may find yourself asking, "Why do I love my dog so much?" And, "Is it normal to love my dog so much?"
The short answer is yes, and for lots of reasons. They don’t call dogs (wo)man’s best friend for nothing. Here, both people and dog behavior experts share more about why we love our dogs.
Reasons Why We Love Dogs So Much
The list of reasons why we love our dogs is seemingly endless, and while you might not need a concrete explanation for why you’re just a teeny bit obsessed with your pup, science, experts and even evolution can point us to what make our bonds so strong.
Thousands of years ago, dogs—or their earliest ancestors, wolves—helped protect human beings by guarding an area and alerting people to incoming threats. Consequently, these dogs would often be allowed to feed on scraps from leftover hunts or be offered shelter, says Clive D. L. Wynne, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University.
This symbiotic relationship may have started out of necessity for both sides, but the idea that a dog offers protection—whether subliminally or through specific tasks—has stuck around. Dogs offer protection from intruders entering your home, even if they’re more bark than bite. Working dogs and service dogs can also provide an array of protection, such as through weapons detection or alerting their humans to an impending medical episode.
If your dog is your BFF, you’re not alone. “As humans, healthy connections are vital for our well-being,” says therapist Jennifer Covarruvias, AMFT, APCC, clinical director of outpatient services for the Mental Health Center of San Diego. Being with your dog reduces stress, and allows you to shift your mood and lower your guard, even if it happens subconsciously, she says. “It's amazing to see a guarded person literally have a transformation in their mood when getting to play with a dog.”
Dogs also help combat loneliness, adds Dr. Wynne. If you’re feeling isolated, dogs step in to hang out with you and provide that companionship.
To be clear, “You’re allowed to simply trust your experiences, so if it feels good to be with your dog, then it is good to be with your dog,” says Dr. Wynne. That said, research has found some tangible physiological outcomes from the strong bonds humans and dogs share.
Several studies, including one published in the journal Anthrozoös in 2012, have shown that interactions between humans and their dogs increased oxytocin levels, aka the feel-good hormone, in both people and their pets. Another earlier study saw this same reaction when dogs and humans made direct eye contact. What’s more, 2017 research has shown that cortisol levels—an indicator of stress—were reduced in humans as a result of interacting with their dog.
TL;DR Spending time with your dog makes you both happier.
Dogs are fantastic listeners, and that’s not just because they can’t talk back. In this way, the relationship we have with our dogs is different from human relationships that often come with scrutiny and opinions.
“Dogs provide us with the purest form of love,” says therapist Covarruvias. “They are present, forgiving and loyal. Dogs are sincere with their intentions. A dog does not care about your social economic status; how you fit or don't fit in society; what car you drive; or what you look like.”
“The interactions we have with our dogs can provide corrective relationship experiences and can most definitely help improve the relationships we build with other humans,” says Covarruvias, who specializes in working with individuals who have experienced trauma. “For example, a person with a trauma background who has difficulty with trust or affection” can relearn these behaviors through their relationship with a dog or pet.
Does My Dog Know I Love Him?
Your dog definitely knows how much you love them, says Jocelyn Walls, CTC, CPDT-KA, CSAT, UW-AAB, a certified dog trainer, behaviorist and owner of Muttineer Dog Training in Los Angeles. “Dogs are social, emotional and intelligent animals,” says Walls. “They bond with the people in their lives. They learn to trust us, and look to us for guidance when we demonstrate that we are safe and care for their needs.”
Just as you’ve learned to understand your dog’s mannerisms, such as when their tail wagging indicates excitement and joy versus nervousness or anxiety, they too can learn to understand our emotions, says Dr. Wynne. “This is all part of people and dogs finding ways to love each other and to understand each other's expressions,” he says.
Your dog’s body language can tell you a lot about what they’re feeling and what they are sensing from you, says Walls. “Does your dog have a relaxed body, soft wagging tail and doe eyes? Perhaps with dogs, the measure of what we might call love is something closer to safety and trust in our dogs. Does your dog believe and know that you are a safe person? Their body language will give you the answer.”
How to Show Dogs You Love Them
So, how can you make sure your fur baby knows just how much they mean to you if they can’t understand when you say ‘I love you?’ “The best way to show your dog that you love them is to think in terms of what is meaningful to the dog,” says Walls. This means thinking beyond stuffed toys and snuggles, she says—though playtime and gentle touch are both great habits, too. Some examples include:
- Cooperative games, like tug-of-war
- Outlets for sniffing, like a snuffle mat
- Comfortable places to rest
- Choice-based walks (where the dog is given agency on routes and places to stop and sniff)
- Doggy play dates
- Training for dog sports, like agility
- Mental stimulation toys
- Low-stress grooming, like a full-body brushing
Of course, what your dog will like best will depend on their personal preferences. “Dogs, just like people, are individuals, so each one of us needs to learn our own dog's love language,” says Dr. Wynne.
Can You Love Your Dog Too Much?
Unless there’s an extreme situation indicating an unhealthy dependency on your dog, such as if you’re repeatedly canceling plans with your human friends and family to spend more time with your pet, it’s not possible to love your dog too much. However, “it's certainly possible to harm one's dog out of misguided love, or a misguided understanding of what a dog’s needs are,” says Dr. Wynne. Some examples include:
- Overfeeding your pet with too many treats and dog food
- Providing an unhealthy diet of high-calorie human food
- Showing them too much physical attention—not all dogs want to cuddle as much as we’d hope
However, for the most part, dog owners shouldn’t be worried about loving their dog too much. Just enjoy them! “Everyone has a different way to demonstrate love, and this can be confused with loving too much, but to love and be loved can be considered a need,” says Covarruvias. “So in my opinion, it’s not possible to love a dog too much, or anything for that matter.”
Do Dogs Feel Love for Their Owners?
You could argue that dogs love us because they need us to provide basic necessities such as food, water and shelter—but there’s so much more to our relationships with one another, says Dr. Wynne, author of “Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You.”
“Yes, our dogs experience our love for them and their love for us,” he says.
Science backs that up: A 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that the area of a dog’s brain responsible for intrinsic reward value or motivation was more active in the majority of doggy participants when researchers signaled that their human was nearby, versus when receiving a signal that they would get food.
“The point is well-established that our dogs do care about us tremendously and that we're very important to them,” Dr. Wynne says. “What's remarkable about dogs is that their social bonds stretch beyond their own species. That's what's so exceptional about dogs: They want to be friends with us.”
Learn more about how dogs communicate