"Do dogs actually love us, or are we just the smell that brings them food?"
That question came from a member of the audience at a recent Wallis Annenberg PetSpace event in Playa Vista. And the answer: It's not so simple, explained Eric Strauss, President's Professor of Biology at LMU.
"You've actually touched on what's called the hard question of consciousness," said Strauss, explaining that love is something a person experiences from within, and then identifies as such.
"But," he added: "We know that there are chemical signals like oxytocin, and we can measure that, which is a surrogate. And we know that those levels increase in both you and your dog as you stare into each other's eyes. Getting your dogs to look you in the eye, and being comfortable with that, that is an extraordinary bond."
Founded by philanthropist Wallis Annenberg, PetSpace opened its doors in June 2017, just a short walk from the future LMU Playa Vista Campus. The center facilitates animal adoptions and also offers classes, educational programs and lectures designed to deepen the bonds among humans and their pets. It has awarded three grants supporting research and education efforts at LMU's Center for Urban Resilience, of which Strauss serves as executive director.
The Sept. 21 event, "Everything (We Wish We Knew) About Dogs and People," gave Strauss the opportunity to share his expertise on human-animal interactions with two other professors. All three are fellows in the PetSpace Leadership Institute, which was created to encourage and facilitate interdisciplinary scholarship, high-level policy discourse and public education programs.
Strauss, an only child who grew up with dogs in his home, focused his talk on the changing relationships among humans and domesticated animals in urban environments.
"Urban ecology, with its relationship to animals, sees that there's a false dichotomy between using the terms human and nature," he said. "We are all one system. Ecology is the study not of the things, but of the interactions among all the things."
Joining Strauss were Greger Larson, a professor who studies the origins of animal domestication at the University of Oxford; and University of Nottingham associate professor of zoology Naomi Sykes.