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What is OCDOCD SubtypesHow do I know my dog loves me? Advice from a therapist

How do I know my dog loves me? Advice from a therapist

8 min read
Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D

By Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D

Nov 28, 2023

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Dogs can be trained to herd sheep, guide people with impaired vision, search for missing persons, protect our homes, and even detect cancer. However, we bring most dogs into our homes for a duty that requires no training: to receive our love and give it back. 

This bond is perhaps best encapsulated by the true story of Hachikō—an Akita who dutifully waited for his owner—Professor Hidesaburo Ueno—to return from work each day at Tokyo’s Shibuya train station. In searing hot summers and freezing cold winters, Hachikō did this each day until his death in 1935—despite Professor Ueno having died nearly a decade earlier. 

This story of fidelity, unwavering devotion, and, yes, love so captured the hearts and minds of Tokyo residents that a statue of Hachikō was erected just outside the station in 1934, quickly making the dog a living legend throughout Japan.  

On a societal level, we take the bond between ourselves and our dogs—beautifully represented by the story of Hachikō—as a given. In my years as a therapist, however, I’ve had more than a handful of people sit in front of me, wracked with doubts about whether their dog does indeed love them. In this article, I’ll explain some of the mental health conditions that can cause doubts about our furry friends to become so distressing.

Conditions that can underpin doubts about your dog’s love

I want to begin by saying that doubting your dog’s love doesn’t inherently signal a mental disorder. It’s natural to seek reassurance and validation, even in our relationships with pets. Canine communication differs from human expressions which can make interpreting emotions difficult. Doubts may stem from personal insecurities or misinterpretations rather than a mental health concern. It’s essential, therefore, to recognize the complex nature of human-animal bonds and not pathologize common uncertainties.

That said, there is sometimes a connection between these doubts and the presence of an underlying mental health issue. In my experience, they can be chalked up to one—or a combination of—any of the following: 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): GAD involves excessive worry and anxiety about various aspects of life. If the doubt about a dog’s love becomes a source of constant concern, leading to difficulty controlling the anxiety, it might be indicative of GAD.

Attachment Disorders: People with attachment disorders may struggle with forming and maintaining healthy emotional connections. If doubts about a dog’s love indicate broader challenges in forming secure attachments, it might suggest an attachment-related concern.

Depression: In some cases, persistent doubts about a dog’s affection may contribute to or be a symptom of depression. Negative thought patterns and feelings of worthlessness can affect one’s perception of relationships, including those with pets.

Social Anxiety Disorder: If the doubt about the dog’s love is linked to a fear of judgment or rejection, it could be associated with social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety may fear that even their pets are judging them negatively.

All of the disorders I’ve mentioned so far are typically addressed with medications, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or a combination thereof. The mental disorder that’s most often associated with this particular fear, however, is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)—which typically responds to a highly effective, evidenced-based therapeutic approach that was specifically developed to treat OCD. I’ll explain it in a bit more detail in just a moment. First, however, I’d like to offer a high-level definition of OCD. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): While it’s true that many people with OCD have obsessions about cleanliness and order, the disorder is far from benign. It’s a complex and serious mental health condition characterized by intrusive, distressing thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) performed to alleviate anxiety or prevent a feared event. 

OCD can have profound adverse effects. People summarily experience debilitating anxiety, impairments in daily functioning, and strained relationships—even those with their pets. The condition I’ve specialized in treating for many years can manifest in many ways. Some people, for instance, have obsessions about harming themselves or others—an OCD subtype called Harm OCD. Many have obsessions around doubts about their sexuality, known as sexual orientation OCD (SO-OCD). Others have obsessions that focus on uncertainty around a perceived attraction to minors called pedophilia OCD (POCD)

Another prevalent OCD subtype centers around doubts about whether their partner loves them or their friends genuinely appreciate them. It’s known as relationship OCD (ROCD), and doubts about whether their dog loves them are just another expression of this theme. The only difference here is we’re talking about an animal instead of another human. I’ve worked with people who ruminate on questions such as:

Does my dog love or even like me? 

Do they only associate me with their need for food and shelter? 

Is my dog showing as much affection toward me as other dogs show to their owners? 

What if my dog actually doesn’t care about me at all? How can I ever know for sure?

Questions like these will provoke an untenable level of distress in people with OCD. To alleviate that distress, people will perform compulsions related to these obsessions.  

A big one might be to excessively pet their dog or give them treats at every opportunity. However, this could intensify anxiety about whether the dog truly loves them or if their relationship is transactional.  

Another compulsion is reassurance-seeking, which can take many forms. Someone with OCD might try to validate their dog’s love for them by searching for behavioral clues like a wagging tail or their physical proximity. They might seek reassurance from a trusted human, perhaps an animal expert. They could, for example, take their dog to the vet and ask them to study their dog’s behavior to get a read on whether they love them. They may even pay close attention to how other dogs behave with their owners and make comparisons, but of course, not every dog’s love and devotion will be expressed like that of the legendary Hachikō. 

I’ve also noticed that people become hyper-conscious to avoid pet care “mistakes” and inadvertently hurt their dog’s feelings. They’re mortified at the thought of feeding them a half-hour off schedule or raising their voice in anger. They fear that by being stern, the dog’s tail will go between their legs, they’ll slink out of the room, or they’ll otherwise develop a grudge against their owner. 

In some cases, people with this fear might even run experiments with their dog, such as having their dog be around other humans to see if they get preferential treatment and attention. This is a little hard to figure out because they don’t typically consider factors like the frequency of interaction. A dog may be excited when a friend shows up once a month, but they see the owner every hour of the day, which, understandably, leads to different behavior. 

In all of these cases, as long as they rely on compulsions, their worries and doubts never go away for long. Doubts about interpersonal relationships are uncertain enough—when dealing with a partner who can’t communicate the way people do, it’s simply impossible to feel completely certain about how they feel. But an impossible degree of certainty is exactly what OCD demands.

The good news is that fears and compulsions centered around doubts about your dog’s love are highly treatable with the gold-standard therapy that is used for all other OCD symptoms. That approach is called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)

What is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)?

In ERP, people are guided by a trained therapist to confront their fears and experience uncomfortable emotions without relying on compulsions to feel better. In time—sometimes a mere matter of weeks—their worry and anxiety are greatly reduced, and they’ve developed a newfound acceptance of uncertainty and confidence in their relationships with their pets.

When people have come to me with obsessions and compulsions that center on how their dog feels about them, we’ve typically done both imaginal and practical therapy exercises. Here’s what that means. 

One imaginal exposure involved inviting doubt about whether their animal truly loves them. We also explored a more general doubt about whether animals are even capable of love and pondered whether there’s a difference between love and food/shelter from a dog’s perspective. This wasn’t to change the person’s beliefs, but to teach them that they are capable of engaging with uncomfortable thoughts, without being ruled by their worries.

Practical or in vivo exercises often took the form of deliberately breaking arbitrary rules set to sustain or enhance the perceived love from the pet. This could involve deliberately giving them food later than usual or appropriately reprimanding them for something naughty. 

By providing opportunities to avoid their usual compulsions, like giving their dog excessive treats after a verbal reprimand that might have upset them, ERP helped these patients reshape maladaptive thought patterns over time, changing their relationship with anxiety and enabling them to live life with greater confidence and freedom. 

Start getting better today

If you think you might have OCD and are interested in learning how it’s treated with ERP, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based, accessible approach to treating OCD, depression, and anxiety disorders like GAD or social anxiety. 

All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. You can also get 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered.

Remember, you’re taking a significant step toward reclaiming your life from OCD. With the right therapist and ERP, you’re setting yourself on a path toward meaningful progress and improved well-being. You’re not alone in this journey; there is hope for positive change.

Learn more about ERP