The Science Behind How Dogs Show Their Love

By Alberto Roy

Updated on:

The bond between dogs and their human companions is one of the most unique and enriching relationships in the animal kingdom. It’s a connection built on mutual affection, trust, and understanding. Dogs, with their keen emotional intelligence, have a special way of expressing love for their owners. 

Understanding these signs of affection is not just about appreciating their loyalty and companionship; it’s about deepening the emotional connection we share with our canine friends.

Physical Signs of Affection

Dogs, much like humans, use physical gestures to express their emotions. One of the most recognized signs of affection is tail wagging. Contrary to popular belief, tail wagging can convey various emotions, but a relaxed, wagging tail typically indicates happiness and affection. 

Border Collies, for example, tend to wag their tails when they’re excited or nervous. However, when accompanied by a soft gaze and relaxed body posture, it’s clear evidence of a dog’s love.

Licking is another common sign of affection. In dog behaviour, licking is a submissive gesture that signals trust and comfort. When a dog licks its owner, it’s often trying to communicate affection and seeking attention in return.

This behaviour harks back to their puppy days, where they licked their mother’s face to strengthen familial bonds.

Physical closeness is also a key indicator of a dog’s love. Dogs that enjoy cuddling or lying close to their owners are showing a deep level of trust and affection. This desire for physical proximity is a sign that they feel safe and loved in their owner’s presence.

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Behavioural Indicators

Beyond the overt physical signs, dogs also exhibit more subtle behavioural cues that indicate affection. One such behaviour is following the owner around. This isn’t just a sign of curiosity or seeking attention; it’s a display of attachment and loyalty. 

Dogs that follow their owners from room to room are often expressing their desire to be near the person they feel most comfortable with. 

Another nuanced sign of affection is a dog’s protective instincts. While excessive protectiveness can be a sign of anxiety or territorial behaviour, a moderate protective stance, like standing in front of their owner or alert barking at strangers, can be a way of showing care and concern for their owner’s safety.

Scientific Perspective

The relationship between dogs and their human companions is not just based on mutual need but is also deeply rooted in complex emotional and physiological connections. Scientific research has provided profound insights into how dogs express love and the mechanisms behind these expressions.

Heart Rate Monitoring Studies

In an innovative approach to understanding canine emotions, research commissioned by Canine Cottages involved fitting dogs with special heart rate tracking collars.

This study revealed that dogs’ heart rates changed in response to interactions with their owners, signifying excitement and affection. This physical response is a clear indicator of the strong emotional bond dogs form with their human companions​​.

Oxytocin Levels

Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” plays a crucial role in the bonding process between dogs and humans. A study published in the Science journal found that when a dog looks into its owner’s eyes, there’s an increase in oxytocin levels in both the dog and the human. This hormonal exchange is akin to the bond between parents and their children. 

Response to Owner’s Scent

Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell, and this plays a significant role in how they perceive and interact with their environment.

A 2015 study in the journal Behavioural Processes discovered that just the scent of their owner can make a dog happy. This indicates that dogs associate their owner’s unique smell with positive emotions and security. 

Facial Expressions

Dogs also use facial expressions to communicate their feelings towards their owners. One study noted that when dogs saw their owners, they raised their left eyebrow higher than when they saw strangers.

This subtle facial movement is a sign of recognition and affection. In contrast, the presence of strangers caused dogs to move their left ears back slightly, indicating caution. This differentiation in response to familiar and unfamiliar people highlights the special status owners hold in their dog’s life​​.

Dogs, our faithful companions, have an incredible ability to express love and affection in ways that often tug at our hearts. The science behind how dogs show their love is a fascinating exploration of canine behavior and the deep emotional bonds they form with their human counterparts.

  1. Tail Wagging:
    One of the most recognizable signs of a dog’s affection is the joyful wagging of their tail. Studies suggest that the direction and speed of a wag can convey specific emotions. A wag to the right may indicate happiness and positive feelings, while a wag to the left might signal anxiety or unease.
  2. Eye Contact:
    The power of eye contact is not limited to humans; dogs use it to establish a connection and convey love. When your dog looks into your eyes, it releases oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” promoting a sense of bonding and trust between you and your furry friend.
  3. Licking and Nuzzling:
    Dogs have a unique way of showing affection through physical contact. Licking is not just a grooming behavior; it’s a display of trust and affection. Nuzzling, leaning against you, or placing a paw on your lap are additional ways dogs seek closeness and express their love.
  4. Smiling and Playfulness:
    Dogs exhibit a form of smiling, often accompanied by an open mouth and relaxed expression, when they are happy and content. Playful behavior, such as bringing toys or engaging in games, is another way dogs express their love and desire for interaction.
  5. Vocalization:
    While barking can serve various purposes, including alerting and communication, the tone and pitch of a dog’s vocalizations can convey their emotional state. A happy, loving dog may have a softer, more melodic bark compared to a distressed or anxious one.
  6. Scent Marking:
    Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell, and they use scent marking to create a shared “scent profile” within their social group. When your dog rubs against you or leaves their scent on your belongings, it’s a way of marking you as an important and cherished part of their pack.
  7. Mirroring Your Emotions:
    Dogs are remarkably adept at picking up on their owners’ emotions. They often mirror your mood, offering comfort and companionship when you’re feeling down or celebrating with exuberance during moments of joy. This ability to empathize strengthens the emotional bond between dogs and their owners.

Understanding the science behind how dogs express love enhances our appreciation for the depth of the canine-human connection. These heartwarming behaviors are not just random actions but are rooted in the evolutionary history and the unique social dynamics that have developed between humans and their beloved canine companions.


Recognizing and appreciating these signs of affection is vital in nurturing the bond between dogs and their owners from the minute you take a puppy home and figure out what the puppy needs.

It’s not just about understanding what makes our canine companions happy; it’s about responding to their love in ways that strengthen our shared emotional connection. 

Through this mutual understanding and respect, the bond between dogs and their humans continues to be one of the most fulfilling and heartwarming relationships.

As we continue to explore the world of canine emotions and behaviours, we not only deepen our bond with our dogs but also gain a greater appreciation for their role in our lives as loyal friends and loving companions.

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