It’s a common belief that dogs miss their owners when separated from them for long periods of time. As highly social animals, dogs form strong bonds with their human families. But can they really feel the emotion of missing someone? Here we’ll explore the evidence around dog emotions and attachment to determine if dogs can truly miss their owners.
Do Dogs Have Emotions?
For a long time it was believed that animals lacked complex emotions like love, grief and jealousy. However, modern research has shown that many animals, including dogs, have the capacity for sophisticated emotional experiences. Studies using MRI machines have found that dog brains contain similar structures to the human limbic system, which processes emotions. Dogs have also been observed displaying clear emotional reactions like excitement, fear, anxiety and anger.
When it comes to attachment and love, there is also good evidence that dogs feel strong bonds with their owners. MRI scans have shown that areas of dogs’ brains linked to pleasure and rewards light up when they interact with familiar people. Dogs are also known to grieve deeply when separated from a loved one. When a companion dies, they may stop eating, mope, whine or howl. Some even fall into depression. This shows dogs form meaningful relationships and feel the pain of loss, just like humans.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
One of the clearest indicators that dogs miss their owners is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety describes a dog’s distress when left alone or apart from their owner. It affects around 14% of dogs and can result in both behavioral and physical symptoms. Common signs of separation anxiety include:
- Destructive behavior – chewing, digging, urinating etc.
- Pacing, restlessness
- Excessive barking or howling
- Loss of appetite
Dogs with separation anxiety may also show signs of excitement when the owner returns, like jumping, spinning or crying. Separation anxiety tends to affect dogs who form very close attachments to a single person. It’s thought to be driven by a dog’s inability to cope when separated from someone they love and depend on for security.
Brain Chemistry Changes
Researchers have found that levels of certain brain chemicals change in dogs when they are separated from loved ones. Oxytocin and dopamine are chemicals produced in the brain that play a role in bonding and rewards. Studies show that when dogs interact with their owners, their oxytocin levels increase. Elevated oxytocin is linked to feelings of pleasure, comfort and security.
Similarly, scientists have found increased dopamine activity in dogs’ brains when presented with stimuli related to their owners – like their scent or voice. Dopamine is the brain’s “feel good” chemical, released when we expect rewards. For dogs, just sensing their owner seems to trigger this rewarding dopamine rush. Changes in these brain chemicals when separated suggests dogs do register their owners’ absence.
Some of the most compelling evidence that dogs miss their owners comes from observed changes in their behavior when left alone. Reactions can vary greatly between dogs based on attachment style and personality. Here are some of the common ways dogs may behave when missing their owners:
Some dogs show clear signs of depression when their owner leaves. Symptoms include withdrawal, lack of interest in toys/food, moving slowly, and staying in the owner’s bed. This reflects sadness over the loss of an attachment figure. Studies show levels of dopamine fall in the brains of separated dogs, which may drive depression.
Dogs who form very close bonds will often actively search for their owner when they go missing. They paw at doors, whine, pace around the house going from room to room, and watch eagerly out of windows. This suggests they are unsettled and aim to try and locate the missing person.
Chewing, digging, urinating and other destructive acts are common responses to separation anxiety. This may reflect a dog trying to somehow reconnect with lost scent markers from the owner. Destruction could also be emotional acting out due to feelings of loss.
When reunited, some dogs become very clingy and demanding of attention. They may follow their owner constantly, nudge them, and cry if they move away. This indicates the dog is trying to reestablish close contact after the period of separation.
Dogs who are very attached will typically react ecstatically when their owner returns after a long absence. Jumping up, spinning in circles, crying, urinating and bringing toys are common behaviors. This outpouring suggests the dog is highly relieved at the reunion.
|Behavior||What it indicates|
|Depression||Feeling sad due to detachment|
|Searching||Actively looking to locate owner|
|Destructiveness||Stress relief and reconnecting with scents|
|Attention-seeking||Reestablishing contact and security|
|Excited greeting||Relief at owner returning and reuniting|
Duration of Separation Impacts Response
Research shows that the duration of separation from an owner influences how intensely a dog will respond when reunited. In one study, dogs were left alone for varying times – from 2 hours up to 6 hours. The dogs who had been deprived of their owner for the longest displayed the most intense greeting behaviors upon return. This included crying more urgently, showing more tail wagging, and staying closer physically. This suggests the length of separation affects how much dogs miss their person.
Breed and Personality Differences
Just like people, some dogs form much closer attachments to their owners than others. This means breeds and individual personalities show differences in how intensely they seem to miss owners. Herding breeds like Collies and German Shepherds are very people-focused and prone to separation anxiety due to missing their person. Other breeds like Labradors and Golden Retrievers are also known to become very attached to owners. In contrast, independent hound dogs like Greyhounds are less needy for human company and less distressed when alone. Carefully bred working dogs tend to handle time apart better as well.
The accumulated research to date indicates that dogs do genuinely miss their owners when separated. Signs like depression, searching behaviors, excitement upon reunion and anxiety from detachment clearly suggest dogs experience the feeling of missing their person. While all dogs can form bonds, those who form very close attachments to a single owner seem most deeply impacted. Factors like breed type, dependency levels and length of separation all impact how intensely a dog will miss their human companion. Overall the evidence shows that while we may never know definitively what dogs are thinking or feeling, the weight of proof points to dogs experiencing a real sense of loss when missing their owners.