In today's online dating world, you can select your soulmate based on your favorite Friends character or your kitten's cuteness, but finding a mate for your mutt is harder to achieve. While there are several services to match dogs to owners, there are no effective apps to help dogs find their other half. But should there be? Can dogs fall in love the way humans do?
To find out, I asked Dr. Marc Bekoff, a researcher and former professor of animal behavior, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds) and behavioral ecology at University of Colorado, Boulder. "Of course," he says matter-of-factly. "If you define love as a long-term commitment—meaning they seek one another out when they're apart, they're happy when they're reunited, they protect one another, they feed one another, they raise their children together—then of course non-human animals love each other."
Even if you define love in more scientific terms, experts come to the same conclusion. "I call it 'the Big O,'" Bekoff says. "Though it's not the panacea, there's really good evidence that oxytocin stimulates positive affect and connection." Research has shown that the level of oxytocin, or "the cuddle hormone," increases for both parties in human-dog hangouts, and according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this is also the case during dog-to-dog interactions. "Oxytocin enhances social motivation to approach and affiliate with conspecifics and human partners, which constitutes the basis for the formation of any stable social bond," the researchers found. The oxytocin levels increased "after dogs engaged in affiliation with their dog partners."
Like humans, dogs don't need diagrams of neuropeptide transmission to understand that what they are feeling is love. "It just feels good for them to be in positive relationships," Bekoff says. For instance, his friend's dog, Tika, was a literal party animal, but she fell in love with a quiet, but hard-headed, stud named Kobuk. They fought like a married couple—Kobuk tried to sneak nibbles of Tika's food, shoving her out of the way—but they raised eight litters of puppies together. When a malignant tumor appeared on Tika's leg, Kobuk wouldn't leave Tika's side, even after she had to have her leg amputated. Kobuk even alerted his owner when Tika got sicker. She was rushed to an an emergency animal clinic and lived. Kobuk's love saved Tika's life.
Puppy love can be even more intimate than human relationships. "Dogs aren't afraid to sniff each other," Bekoff explains. "They express themselves clearly, and they're not afraid to say, 'I love you.'" Bekoff believes humans can learn a lot from dogs about how to have honest relationships.
But with love comes heartbreak, and dogs aren't immune from the aches, pain, and anguish that humans are so adept at afflicting on their lovers. "Dogs get rejected just like we do," Bekoff notes. "I've seen wild coyotes get rejected in a love relationship, and they just mope around. They don't know what to do with themselves."
Evidence shows most canines practice monogamy. They will defend their mates and protect them from potential adulterers, but there are definitely a few true dogs out there, too. Sometimes, male dogs will wait until another's mate is gone before he sneaks over to seduce a pooch he's had his eye on. "They call them 'sneak copulators,'" Bekoff says.
Regardless of whether your pup is looking for true love or just a cute side bitch, scent plays a major role in their choice of mate. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog, dogs even have a distinctive scent detection system, the Jacobsen's organ, to help them receive all kinds of information from other dogs' pheromones, including gender, age, health, mood, and stage of menstrual cycle. Bekoff believes dogs don't search for a particular scent in a mate, though. It's more about compatibility. "Humans talk about good chemistry between them," he says. "It's the same with dogs."