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Rethinking ‘man’s best friend’: WSU research shows the importance of dogs in women’s lives

Rianne Baker adds a splash of water to her dog, Ace, during a warm afternoon in Audubon Park on May 29 in Spokane. Baker took a break from her Carrington College medical assistant physical therapy studies to water the Pomeranian-Keeshond mix as temperatures reached into the 80s.  (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Rianne Baker adds a splash of water to her dog, Ace, during a warm afternoon in Audubon Park on May 29 in Spokane. Baker took a break from her Carrington College medical assistant physical therapy studies to water the Pomeranian-Keeshond mix as temperatures reached into the 80s. (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Erik Lacitis Seattle Times

So, it turns out the saying about dogs being a man’s best friend needs revising.

It should be “woman’s best friend.”

Anthropologists at Washington State University analyzed 8,000 descriptions of dogs interacting with humans in 144 societies of all sorts – from the Toraja in Indonesia to the Tiwi in Australia to the Northwest Coast people. They examined writings mostly from the late 1800s and early 1900s, although one reached back to Imperial Rome in 79 CE.

Dogs weren’t mentioned as being in the company of the elderly men of the Ainu Indigenous culture in Japan, a researcher wrote in 1892. Rather, in small, tent-like structures, “the aged women of the village sleep in them and have dogs for companions,” wrote Smithsonian curator Romyn Hitchcock.

The lore might be about the lone prairie cowboy and his dog and horse sharing this mystical bond.

The reality is different.

Men and women generally like dogs, and they both are likely to treat the canines as people.

“But when dogs are interacting with women in a particular society, dogs are more likely to have names, be treated as family, as kin, to be buried and mourned when they died,” says Professor Robert Quinlan, of WSU’s anthropology department and one of three authors of the recently published paper in the Journal of Ethnobiology,

The statistic: In those 144 cultures, dogs that interacted with women were 220% more likely to be treated like people in comparison to dogs that didn’t interact with women.

For dogs that interacted with men, the figure was 63%.

Dogs just respond better to how women treat them, says Quinlan.

And for women, that response goes both ways.

“It’s more likely that a woman will have a dog sleeping alongside her,” says Ph.D. student Jaime Chambers, another of the paper’s authors.

Says Chambers, “Women are feeding the dogs, they’re caring for the dogs, they’re sleeping alongside the dogs. There can be a tendency in modern American society that the way we bond with dogs is unique or particular to recent history in the West. A woman living today in her apartment with her dog might look different than a woman and her dog in the Amazon or Indigenous Australia. But they are all part of this bigger history.”

Luckily for the researchers, there is a collection of more than 700,000 pages indexed at a massive collection of anthropological papers at Yale University. That was their source, and with so much material available, why they decided to pursue the research.

Rob Quinlan says the researchers began coding “using all English terms for dog – hounds, mutt …”

The descriptions in those papers at times are of cultures markedly different than modern America, says Quinlan.

Here is a 1902 observation from an ethnologist traveling in the Aguaruna region of Peru headhunters: “Many dogs are in evidence everywhere in the Indian houses. … The women give them special attention. … In the case of puppies I have witnessed how the Indian woman first chewed the food and then offered it to the dog out of her own mouth. Very young puppies are carried by the women in the fold of her upper dress and they are allowed to suck on the women’s breasts.”

Here is a 1950s description of Tiwi women in Melville Island, North Australia: “If women received little help from their men folk, they got a great deal of help from their well-trained hunting (dingo) dogs. … Women call their dogs by the same kinship terms as they call their own children. Dogs are also given sib membership. They have personal names that must be unique. A dog that gets too old to hunt is never killed but is retired, and another pup is trained to take its place. When a hunting dog dies, he is buried, and his owner’s family weep and often cut themselves in mourning.”

In the Pacific Northwest, one example of how dogs played a role in women’s lives is found with the Coast Salish people. Salish women used the now-extinct woolly dogs, a small, long-haired animal, to make legendary blankets. A photo of two young coastal women shows one holding a dog on her lap.

According to the late textile expert Elizabeth Flower Anderson Miller, the woolly dogs were kept by the women in flocks of 12 to 20 animals, and fed raw salmon, smoked salmon, and, to make their coats shine, elk tallow and liver.

“The shorn wool was so thick that Captain Vancouver could pick up a corner and the whole pelt would hold together,” wrote Miller.

She wrote that the last woolly dog died around 1940, as the Salish population was decimated by plague, and diseases and parasites that had been introduced by settlers devastated the dog population.

Our fascination with dogs seems to be endless.

Type in “dogs” and “anthropology” on Google Scholar, a repository of scientific papers, and you get 345,000 results.

There you can find a 2015 paper on how oxytocin (“recognized for its role in bonding, socialization and stress relief”) increased “statistically more” for women than men when around their dog.

Or a 2015 paper about single women placing “more value on how a potential mate interacts with their pet (specifically, their dog) than will single men.”

Or that a 2007 survey of young women dog owners in large Chinese cities said they exercised more frequently, slept better and took fewer days off sick from work.

The pandemic has made dogs – and cats – even more valuable as human companions stuck at home.

Says Seattle Humane: “The desire to adopt pets increased dramatically, and has remained steady.” The Seattle Animal Shelter says that with fewer staff and volunteers, there are no walk-ins but only appointments. It says the number of dogs taken in and dogs adopted has dropped dramatically.

Of course, the WSU researchers are also dog owners. Quinlan, and his wife, Marsha Quinlan, also a WSU anthropology professor and the paper’s third author, own three dogs. Chambers owns two dogs – Chalo, whom she got when she was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Malawi in Southeastern Africa; and Priya, a dog from India that a friend gave her.

What is it about dogs as persons and women?

Says Rob Quinlan, “Dogs and humans bond with each other a lot like parents bond with their children, and a child’s first bond is with their mother. Whatever the reasons, humans owe a big debt to dogs and women have been making good on that debt for a long time, and in many different places.”

Yes, Max the Dog, you’re the only one who truly understands.

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