NIU Exhibit Highlights The Relationship Between Humans And Dogs

Mar 1, 2019

Credit Guy Stephens

The Pick Museum of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University is presenting an exhibit this spring that examines the relationship between dogs and humans. 

The first thing you see when you enter "For the Love of Humans: A History of Dogs" is a dog and fire hydrant; a little humor to break the ice. But there's much more to know about the canine-human connection, according to the museum's acting director, Rachelle Wilson-Loring. She curated the exhibition.

"We're actually exploring the way that humans and canines have co-evolved with each other for thousands of years," she said. "So we're looking a little bit of both, but we are focusing a little bit more on the canines."

A lot is packed into the relatively small space: pictures, religious objects, a dog sled, a team of huskies (not real) plus plenty of text for those who want a deeper dive. Wilson-Loring said it starts with how the two species came together.

"Humans and canines - wolves really - have a very similar social structure," she said. "And so the origins of their relationship started as a very mutually beneficial relationship. They could hunt together and be more successful because they were hunting together."

Looking around the exhibit, you see the many ways dogs have woven themselves into our lives. In religion, they're represented in Mexican ceramic votives, and dogs get their own day during the Nepali version of the Hindu Festival of Diwali. Canines were also a mode of transportation before the horse came to the New World; native Americans used them to drag supplies from place to place.

Today many work as shepherds. In Sweden they even hunt truffles, helping that country become a market leader. Loring-Wilson said it had something to do with the warming climate. 

More generally, she said, dogs have integrated themselves into society as police, fire, search and rescue, and guide dogs. Take for example, Izzy -- NIU's explosive ordinance detection dog.

"She can actually sniff out 19,000 combinations of explosives," she said. "So she goes through our stadium beforehand to check and make sure things are okay. She goes to the buildings and checks to make sure everything is okay."

Then there are therapy dogs, like those that visit campus each semester to relieve the stress of finals. 

Utility is one thing, but it still doesn't explain the close bond between dog and humans. Wilson-Loring said there are a lot of reasons given – love, loyalty, social hierarchy – but scientists are still not sure exactly what's behind it. They just know it goes way back, as evidenced by ancient dog remains showing signs of veterinary care. And there are examples from traditional societies.

"Inuit communities have had very, very strong relationships with their canines as companions," she said, "not only in everyday working life, but in just general life, you know, as family members as well. So this concept of dogs as members of the family has been around for centuries."

This hasn't, however, protected them from abuse. Wilson-Loring says the exhibit discusses puppy mills and the problems they can create. And there's another issue that she says surprises many visitors to the museum.

"Usually there's around 60,000 dogs that are used for animal testing every year," she said. "And beagles are the number one animals that are used in animal testing facilities because they're generally very docile, they have large litters of puppies."

With this in mind, the exhibit provides examples of common products that do not use dogs or other animals for testing.

Pick Museum Acting Director Rachelle Wilson-Loring stands next to a display of products that do not use animal testing
Credit Guy Stephens

On that score, she said, it's about more than just imparting information.

"Part of our mission here at The Pick," she said, "is to be a part of social justice dialogue and effecting change within our community, and so for this exhibit we have our Support Local Animals wall."

The museum partnered with three organizations: TAILS Humane Society in DeKalb, Raven's Husky Haven and Rescue in Sycamore, and Stardust Animal Sanctuary in Richland. On the wall, each lists adoptable dogs they have available. There's also what the museum calls "the action card initiative."

"And so these little cards look like business cards," she said, "and they have different donations that these organizations are looking for. And maybe it's, you know, a dog toy or new and used towels that you want to bring in for blankets, dog bowls, anything that you would like to bring in and donate."

There are even bins to put donations in.

Whether they donate or not, she wants visitors to leave excited about what they've learned -- and about the place dogs occupy in our lives and in our hearts.