By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
We all know how much we love our dogs. But do our dogs know how much we love them? The short answer is yes! The long answer is that domesticated dogs are not your stereotypical pack animals, living and hunting in groups. Dogs can feel things, not just physical sensations, like touch, but emotions too in response to the outside environment.
In fact, there are significant similarities between dogs and humans in how we express and relate to feelings of love. Whole-body wiggles, big sighs as they cuddle into your lap, and even that enthusiastic pounce towards you with their favorite toy are all signs that your dog feels the love.
Signs of Affection from Your Pup
When humans love someone, we may practice words of affirmation, acts of service, spending quality time together, giving physical affection, and giving/receiving gifts. Sound familiar? These are the Five Love Languages, and dogs have love languages too. A happily wagging tail, relaxed and "smiley" facial expressions towards you, and even snuggling their head into your lap are all ways a dog shows love. They use their body language, which is the most effective way of giving and receiving communication with us. So rest assured that when your dog gets the zoomies just by someone else mentioning your name, you're the recipient of an unmatchable, unconditional love that bonds us so closely to our canine counterparts.
How to Show Your Dog You Love Him
So, how do we say "I love you" back, so our dogs know how loved they are? The best way to share your love for your dog is to spend quality time with them, doing things you enjoy. Here are some specific ways to reciprocate their unconditional love.
Work on Training With Them
Dog training is critical to communication. Have you ever disagreed with someone, and you know that disagreement could have been avoided with clear communication? Imagine the other person didn't even speak the same language. Dogs have a very different language from humans; often, the message our dogs receive (and even the feedback they give us in return) ends in miscommunication. The more we train and work with them, the more we learn about what they love and don't love. In turn, this strengthens our bond with our pups, improving communication. Better communication means happier, more loving relationships.
Pro tips for communication:
- If you've had a hard day or are experiencing higher than usual stress levels, pick a different time to train with your dog, as your dog can sense your stress, making training stressful for you both. Instead, include your dog in your stress-relief practices, like mindful breathing, to ease out of a taxing day while you rub your dog's ears. Even when you have not had an arduous day, spending five to ten minutes once a day on breathing exercises builds healthier, stronger lungs, cultivates a healthier mindset, and, most importantly, nurtures a meaningful bond with your furry family members.
- Avoid using punishment which can break down trust. Instead, train with positive reinforcement, adding things that your furry best friend loves when they do the things that you love so that they will want to repeat those behaviors.
Rub Your Dog's Ears
Physical touch with someone (furry or otherwise) we love has a positive reciprocating effect, meaning it's mutually beneficial when humans physically interact with dogs. It releases endorphins and oxytocin not just in your dog but in you too! Rubbing the ears triggers specific sensitive receptors that release these "happy hormones," while making physical contact with affection triggers the release of those happy hormones in you.
Pro-tip for showing affection:
- Show affection in the way that your dog likes to receive affection. Avoid hugging unless you are certain your dog enjoys being held tight. Most dogs are not fans of this type of human affection; they merely tolerate it. Forcing pups to endure activities they don't enjoy can harm your relationship with your dog in the long run. Instead, stick to the ear rubs, the belly rubs, the butt scratches, or any other type of affection your dog keeps coming back and asking for more.
Feed Your Dog by Hand
One way to your dog's heart is through his stomach. Food is a love language for many dogs. Sitting down with them to hand-feed them part of their breakfast or dinner is an easy way to involve yourself in something your dog loves. It also brings you together for that essential daily one-on-one time. If you feed fresh or wet food you don't want to handle with your fingers, you can hand-feed them tasty treats or air-dried chews as an alternative. Hand-feeding also has the added benefit of helping to reduce and prevent food aggression.
Pro-tip for hand-feeding:
- Try playing the "which hand is the treat in?" game with some of their kibble to make it even more fun when feeding by hand.
Feed Them Proper Nutrition
Love your doggy longer by providing a highly nutritious diet and supplementing anything they aren't getting enough of in their meals. The gift of a healthy, long life is one of the best ways to share your love with your dog. In addition, dogs' brains are directly connected to their gut, so a happy, healthy digestive system can contribute to a happy, healthy brain — less room for stress and more room for love.
Nutrition Pro Tips:
- Look for limited-ingredient dog foods with a meat protein source as the first ingredient.
- Boost their gut health by adding a probiotic or prebiotic to their daily diet.
- Avoid grain-free diets. While dogs need to be on a meat-protein-forward diet, they are omnivores and can extract energy from carbohydrates. In addition, vegetables help keep good bacteria in the gut happy.
- Avoid plant-based and novel proteins such as pea protein, kangaroo, crocodile, or bison unless your dog has food intolerances that require a novel or plant-based protein.
- Check the Omega 3 Fatty Acid content. Polyunsaturated fats support overall dog cognition, healthy skin and coat, joint support, and heart support.
- Choose a diet of human-grade fresh food or add a food topper to your dog's kibble for a nutrition boost.
Remember that dogs have individual nutritional requirements just like people, so talk with your vet or a veterinary nutritionist about the best diet for your unique pup.
Play with Your Pup
Like humans, dogs can form core memories of happiness from playtime that will strengthen your lifelong bond. Playtime is also an excellent stress reliever. Giving in to the fun has long-lasting effects on mental well-being and is a great way to show your dog how much you love them.
Physical playtime with a pet parent has been shown to significantly reduce the effects and progression of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. This degenerative brain condition affects canine cognition (normal thought- and sense-processing abilities) in senior dogs, similar to Alzheimer's in humans. As dogs continue to age, there are many ways to show love to your companions, such as keeping them comfortable, keeping them healthy, and also keeping life fun through play!
Pro-Tip for Playtime:
- Meaningful and healthy playtime involves both participants sharing roles. For example, sometimes you win tug-of-war, and sometimes your dog wins. If you chase your dog, allow your dog to chase you back. Exchange playful interactions for the best playtime experience.
There's a fascinating bond between domesticated dogs and their human counterparts which mirrors a phenomenon seen in human-to-human interactions. A mother gazes at her newborn as she nurses, and her newborn gazes back. The result is a positive oxytocin feedback loop that strengthens the bond between mother and infant. That oxytocin, fondly known as the love hormone, is released into the bloodstream and floods the brain with the feel-good chemical, encouraging further intimate interactions between mother and newborn.
The same response can be measured in oxytocin levels in humans and dogs when dogs and their owners exchange loving looks. It was once believed that making eye contact with your dog was a way to show dominance; science now recognizes this vital sign of affection that connects us with our canine companions. Where dominating and forceful techniques induce fear in our dogs, kind and loving behaviors protect the oxytocin bonding pathway, reduce stress levels, reduce blood pressure, and bring us closer together.
How to Know Your Dog Loves You Back
The next time you gaze into those adorable eyes and sweetly ask your furry friend, "do you love me?" you won't need the whole-body wag, the grin from ear to ear, or the prancing about like it's the best day ever. You'll know that providing for your precious pup is the best way to say "I love you" right back.
If you have a unique way to share your love with your dog, share them with us on social media and tag us to spread the love!