The bond between humans and their dogs dates back thousands of years, says University of Alberta anthropologist Rob Losey.

"We share the same kind of basic biological response to each other," said Losey during an interview with CBC Radio Active host Portia Clark. " It's not a one directional kind of thing.  I think that's what makes the relationship we have with our dogs so special.

"That capacity arose in dogs and people a long time ago. It's not something that arose in the last few centuries. It's very, very ancient."

Losey began researching the connection between man and canine more than 15 years ago at a massive excavation site near Lake Baikal, Siberia, the worlds largest freshwater lake.

Buried deep beneath the lake bed, ancient burial grounds between 5,000 and 8,000 years old hold some of the earliest evidence of the domestication of dogs, and demonstrate the esteem canines held, even in ancient societies.

Dog bones

These dog bones were unearthed in an ancient burial ground in Siberia, where dogs were buried in cemeteries alongside their owners. (University of Alberta )

 "I was really struck by the amount of evidence in this particular region for really close bonds between dogs and humans," said Losey. "I was really sucked in by it. It was something that was totally new to me."

Dogs, often adorned with decorated collars, trinkets and keepsakes, were buried alongside humans. In one instance a man was found buried in the same grave as his two dogs, laid carefully on either side of their owner.

"For about a thousand-year period, people were regularly burying their dogs, and not only were they burying them,  they were burying them in cemeteries, in exactly the same way they were burying their human dead," said Losey. "They would make a grave for them, they would bury them with other items. They obviously were well cared for."

Through chemical analysis of dog bones, Losey was able to determine that the Siberian dogs were fed the same diet as humans, suggesting that begging for table scraps has also been part of the human-dog relationship for a long time.

"I think they were working companions, they engaged with people in their everyday tasks, whether it was hunting or hauling things, or protecting people from other humans or animals," said Losey.

"They were part of a working group, but also a close personal companion that people had close emotional ties to."

Dogs evolved from wolves between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, after packs of wild dogs started cohabitating with humans, feeding off scraps from humans.

"Initially this was up to the wolves," said Losey.  "Some groups of wolves started to forage around human living places, feeding off of human waste, and over time some of those animals evolved to have less fear of humans."

Losey is now investigating a different dog burial site in the Siberian Arctic. With more than 100 ancient dogs, it's the largest archeological collection of its kind ever unearthed in the Arctic. He's found some evidence of sled dogs wearing what appear to be harnesses, along with signs that reindeer were also harnessed.

Losey says the archeological picture is incomplete, and more research on the evolution of the animal-canine partnership is necessary.

"It's a complicated story," said Losey. "Right now it's something that is very hard to quantify."

Losey admits that his passion  for dogs extends beyond his academic life

"I have a black lab named Guinness. She brings me a lot of joy and companionship and I hope I do the same thing for her."

dog

University of Alberta anthropologist Rob Losey and his dog Guinness.