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Professor Takes Sociological Look
at Dog-Human Interaction
November 1, 1999

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

For more than a decade, Sanders, a professor of sociology, also has researched dogs, though not in the usual sense. Instead, he has looked at how people relate to and interact with dogs from a sociological point of view.

"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 part of society," he says. "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, as well as at guide dog training schools and obedience schools.

Sanders previously co-authored two books: 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 different human groups.

He was especially touched by the reliance of guide dog owners on their pets; they interacted with their dogs in much the same way as would everyday owners but, at the same time, relied on them for their day-to-day existence.

Richard Veilleux