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Professor takes sociological look at dog-human interaction (Released: 10/15/99)

by Richard Veilleux, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- Clint Sanders knows dogs, works with dogs, loves dogs. Since he was 12 years old, he has always owned dogs, although he may prefer "lived with" to "owned."

For more than a decade, Sanders, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, also has researched dogs, though not in the usual sense. Instead, Sanders has looked at how people relate to and interact with dogs in a sociological sense. And, he has found, dogs 'R people too.

"Living with pets is an important part of life, and pet owners -- most of them, anyway -- view their pets as individuals, as members of the family. My research takes this and looks at it on another level. It legitimizes what people feel about their pets," says Sanders, who has turned his research into a new book, Understanding Dogs: Living and Working with Canine Companions (1999, Temple University Press).

What Sanders has learned through his research, in fact, persuades him that "our animal companions are thoughtful, emotional, intentional, and empathetic partners with us in our social world." Through his years of work in the field, observing canine behavior first hand, Sanders says there is "massive evidence" that dogs think and "can see things through."

As a sociologist, Sanders takes it one step further. "They're there. They're part of society. We live in a mixed species society. Dogs are not small, funny, slightly retarded people, they're dogs. They think differently than we do, and it's important for me -- for us -- to understand them. Social inequality is a continuous process because of mutual ignorance. If we treat them -- dogs or other people -- more sensibly, we can live in a more humane society. We can get along better.

"If society makes any sense at all, it is in understanding the interactions between different people," says Sanders who, as part of his research, worked part-time in a veterinarian's office for one year, in guide dog training schools for nine months, and at obedience schools.

Sanders previously co-authored the book Regarding Animals (1996, Temple University Press), and Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing (1990), a book about the art of tattoos and body piercing.

Sanders, whose book includes chapters on the interaction between dogs and the everyday owner, the guide dog owner, the guide dog trainer and the veterinarian, found several distinctions -- and many similarities -- between the groups. He was especially touched by the reliance of guide dog owners on their pet, which interacted with them much as it would an everyday owner's animal but, at the same time, remained vital to their everyday existence.