PITTSBURGH – Anne Burrows is a biological anthropologist and professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who teaches a course on the unique relationship between humans and dogs.
She also has a special place in her heart for our canine companions, volunteering at Animal Friends three days a week as a dog walker and raising an 8 year old husky mix named Ruby.
Burrows agreed to share some of his thoughts on the special bond dogs and humans share, and how dogs have evolved to better communicate with their human caregivers. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q. How far back does the dog / human relationship go?
A. It goes back at least 40,000 years. There is no archaeological evidence for earlier. About 40,000 years ago in Southeast Asia and Central Europe you began to see compelling evidence for the domestication of dogs.
Q. What is unique about the dog / human relationship?
A. The way dogs and humans read each other’s facial expressions with a high degree of accuracy. And there is no other animal, whether wild or domestic, with which we engage in mutual gaze.
Q. What do you mean by “mutual gaze”?
A. We look each other in the eyes. If you have a cat, you can look at each other, but usually only for a short period of time. Humans and dogs release the hormone oxytocin (into their bloodstream) when they look at each other. It is a hormone that is believed to make an emotional connection.
When a mother looks into the eyes of a newborn baby, her brain usually releases oxytocin. It encourages you to stay put. You don’t want to go anywhere else. It helps to release the milk. Fathers also release it when they look into their baby’s eyes. It appears to lower testosterone levels and helps reduce aggressive impulses and (makes them) want to protect and spend time with the baby.
So there’s this physiological response that dogs and humans have when we look each other in the eye.
Q. Why do dogs and humans get along so well?
A. Tens of thousands of years of bonding. No one really knows why we domesticated dogs. It must have been mutually beneficial. There are theories. (Maybe) packs of wolves and humans engaged in cooperative hunting. (Maybe) packs of wolves followed the humans and ate the carcasses that the humans butchered.
Dogs and humans meet in a way that no other species does.
Q. What are the most important things dog owners need to know about their canine companions?
A. They should consider whether they are willing to spend the time housing and caring for a dog. Some people want to have a dog that doesn’t require any work but can pose for great photos on Instagram. Dogs need your attention and to spend time bonding with them. I can’t tell you how many people end up abandoning a dog at a shelter because they didn’t think it would be as much work as owning a dog.
Q. Why is it important to spend time with your dog?
A. That is what dogs are. Dogs don’t exist without humans. Humans invented dogs. The dog’s brain is wired to please people and be a companion for people. If a dog can’t be that companion … the dog might develop behavioral issues. Your dog is your life partner. Your dog is part of your family.
Q. You were part of a research team that discovered that dogs can use something called “puppy eyes” to get what they want. Briefly explain what it is and what dogs use it for.
A. The inner corners of the dog’s eyes lift up and the dog looks sad. Every time my dog does this to me, I let go of what I’m doing to see what she wants. Somehow humans were bred for this behavior during the dog domestication process, many dogs now do. Either way, dogs that make this face are able to elicit a caregiver response from their humans.
Q. The name of the course you teach is “Are Dogs Our Best Friends?” What do you think is the answer to this question?
A. Yes, certainly. They never leave us. They are loyal no matter what. We use dogs to support people with life threatening disabilities. We have guide dogs and dogs with epilepsy. We have dogs in war who have given their lives to do their jobs. Ultimately, a lot of us want to come home and snuggle up with our dogs. Human and canine brains are linked. Our existence is linked.
Q. Are there any big misconceptions about dogs that you could dispel?
A. A lot of people have an idea about a pit bull. Many people consider pit bulls to be mean, dangerous and aggressive breeds. All of the pit bulls I have worked with have been reasonably friendly. Most of them want to be hugged and loved and are so eager to please humans. There are no bad pit bulls. There are bad owners. An owner trains a pit bull to be aggressive or mistreat the animal.
Q. Is there anything else, according to you, that people would be interested in knowing about dogs?
A. If I leave anything with you, it would be – be nice to your dog. Don’t hit your dog. Do not punish your dog or use a shock collar. Treat your dog with the same care you would expect. When telling your dog to do something or not to do something, it is better to do it with positivity rather than hitting or shocking.
The only purpose of this dog is to make you happy, so be nice. They ask for so little.