What is Love?

Dear Wombat and Dingbat,
I’m a human and I love my dog very much. In fact, I honestly never knew I had this much of love inside me to give to another being until we met. I know he recognizes me as The Giver of Good Things, and I flatter myself to think that I am his favorite human…but I also question this quite a bit, so I’m hoping you can help clear things up. Do dogs feel love…or a love-like emotion…for their humans? Or is it all about who has the best treats? Thanks for your help!

—In Love with a Dog

Dear In Love,

Of course your dog loves you. Duh. What kind of a question is this? Next.

Hey, not so fast, buddy. I mean, I’m with you, in that dogs certainly feel love in a way that I assume is very much like what humans feel. Of course, I’ve never been a human, but as far as I can tell The Human is entirely capable of feeling love, in spite of all the nasty, un-dog-like things that many humans seem to do. And scientists have known for some time that human/dog interactions like gazing into one another’s eyes, smiles and snuggles increase oxytocin, the “love hormone,” in both people and dogs.

But In Love seems to assume that there’s some kind of “real love” that is separate from the way that everyone, human and dog, turns toward the source of reinforcement. B.F. Skinner, the founder of behavior science, said: “What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.”

Wait. So you’re saying that the reason I go all soft and squinty-eyed looking at The Human is because I know she gives us snacks? I mean, I love snacks. Like really love them. Especially cheese. And chicken. And broccoli. And those little blueberry treats that she makes just for us. And…

Were we going somewhere with this?

Right. What I meant to say is that as much as I love snacks, they don’t make me go squishy and squinty-eyed. Kind of the opposite. More bouncy and crunchy. So what I feel about The Human can’t just be about the treats.

Right. But think about all the other things you do with The Human.

Like the games with snacks for prizes?

Yes, that. But also how she scratches your chest…

…Ooo, the arm pit. Especially on the right. I love that.

And how she sings you songs and tugs on toys and smiles back when you smile at her and tells you how cute and how handsome you are? Those are all reinforcements. Things that increase you wanting to be with her.

So her smiling at me during the day makes me want to sleep on top of her feet at night?

I guess. I mean, I think her feet are kind of lumpy, and I’d rather curl up against her side, but you do you.

So do humans love each other because of the skritching and the smiles?

More or less. Apparently, humans aren’t that into having their arm pits scratched. But there are all kinds of different reinforcers, like interesting conversations and bringing coffee and listening when someone is having a hard time and text messages and well, a whole bunch of things. Some of which I will discuss with you when you’re older.


Never mind. The point is that you can’t really separate out the feeling of love from the feeling of being drawn toward someone because of what they give you. And, for that matter, the good feelings you get when you give something to them.

Wait, so giving something to somebody can be as much of a reinforcement as getting something?

Sure. Why do you think The Human bothers to make us blueberry treats?

Hey, do you think The Human would have better luck dating if she handed out blueberry treats?

Maybe. But that could lead to less for us, so I don’t think she should chance it.

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