Anthropology class takes UNC students to the dogs

Christy Kuesel, The Herald Sun

UNC Chapel Hill students attend a summer anthropology class titled "Canine Cultures," taught by associate professor Margaret Wiener. Pictured is rising senior Avery Mavroudis greeting a dog from UNC PAWS. Photo by Johnny Andrews, courtesy of UNC Chapel Hill

“Man’s best friend” refers to dogs of all shapes and sizes, but most dogs aren’t man’s friends. They’re not even pets.

Professor Margaret Wiener’s course “Canine Cultures,” taught during UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Maymester,” explored the dog-human relationship.

“What sociocultural anthropology is about is making the strange familiar and the familiar strange,” Wiener said. “I can’t think of anything more familiar than the dog.”

Sociocultural anthropology combines social and cultural anthropology, studying the norms and values of societies.

Wiener said people have two common misconceptions about dogs: that all dogs are pets and that all dogs belong to breeds.

The majority of the world’s dogs are not pets, but free-roaming dogs, like one that stayed with a family Wiener lived with while doing field work in Indonesia.

The dog came home every night, but mostly spent his days on the streets. Residents saw the dogs there as guardians, and it was the dogs’ job to recognize who belonged in the community.

“They aren’t seen as a source of emotional satisfaction,” Wiener said.

Most dogs are not purebreds. Although people tend to identify dogs by breed, the free-roaming dogs Wiener described defied easy labels.

“The assumption is that dogs are naturally in breeds and sometimes they get messed up,” Wiener said. Although some biologists say village dogs around the world tend to resemble one another, Wiener disagrees.

The human-dog relationship can be traced back at least 15,000 years. Wiener said dogs were not just the first domesticated animal, but the first domesticated species – beating any plant species.

Scientists have only begun to study the human-dog relationship, however.

“Scientists who studied animals didn’t really see dogs as natural,” Wiener said. “They’ve been a part of human life for so long that they didn’t seem interesting.”

Anthropologists tend to focus on animals entirely from a human point of view, instead of looking at how animals see the world. Recent research by scientists like Alexandra Horowitz changed this model, focusing on how animals interact with their surroundings.

Maymester is a three-week session where students can take a course for three hours a day. Students in “Canine Cultures” used the tools of anthropology, as well as went on field trips to places like the Orange County Animal Services Department, where some did research.

Avery Mavroudis looked at why people adopt dogs such as the behavior or appearance of animals. She saw perceptions of certain breeds influence adoption rates. Dogs that look like pit bulls, for example, get adopted less than dogs that look like golden retrievers.

“I got to learn a lot about shelter dog life, and it really just opened my eyes,” Mavroudis said.

“The biggest thing I learned was that we throw our human emotions onto animals,” she said. She learned to step back and avoid looking at animals from a human-centric point of view.

Wiener taught her students the basic method of sociocultural anthropologists, participant observation in which “questions emerge from what we’re hearing and doing and saying.”

Students completed a variety of assignments, like writing up observations of human-dog interactions, watching documentaries about dogs and visiting the Ackland Museum of Art to analyze a 17th century Dutch painting of dogs.

The end goal of the class was an ethnography, or a scientific description of a way of life, centering on the field research students had completed on human-dog interactions.

Human and canine representatives from UNC PAWS, an emotional support dog program pairing dogs with clients as therapy for mental illnesses, and Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, a program pairing assistance dogs with individuals with disabilities, visited the class.

Public safety officer Ray Rodriguez and his dog, Franklin, also visited the class. Franklin is trained to help alleviate stress and assist in crisis response.

Mavroudis, a rising senior, said the class helped her become a better student, researcher and anthropologist, even though she majors in statistics. She said she would consider doing graduate work in anthropology, even though “Canine Cultures” is the only anthropology course she has taken at UNC.

“I didn’t think a class about dogs would teach me as much as it did,” Mavroudis said.

The class included students from a variety of majors, so Wiener focused teaching anthropology to students who did not know what the field is.

Wiener decided to focus on dogs because of the large amount of scientific literature on them. Although cats are also pets, scientists have studied them less, and cats have not been domesticated for as long as dogs.

Wiener plans to teach the course again.

She and Mavroudis have dogs of their own, just like many of the students in the class. Wiener has a Coton de Tulear named Mojo and Mavroudis has a Shih Tzu named Hennessy.

“He’s my bestie,” Mavroudis said.


Christy Kuesel writes for The Herald Sun, where this article originally ran.