The oldest love story isn’t “Romeo and Juliet” or any Greek myth, says TEDx speaker Courtney Sexton. It is the millennia-old love affair between humans and dogs.

“The lives that they lead with us today are very different from even 100 years ago,” Sexton said. “And, so, dial that back 30,000 years. People just don't know that part of the story and they're always really fascinated.”

Sexton, a post-doctoral researcher in population health sciences within the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, explains the enduring connection between humankind and canines in a 10-minute, 18-second TEDx talk entitled “Dogs are People, Too,” delivered in October as part of TEDxWarrenton at Laurel Ridge Community College. 

“I was a writer before getting back into research,” said Sexton, who has published numerous articles in Smithsonian Magazine. “So, I am really interested in language to begin with, and I have had dogs all my life. I have seen firsthand just how fluidly they adapt to our cues and modes of communication to the point of anticipating things before we even know we’re thinking them. Now, we’re doing studies that are actually showing this.” 

Sexton, who works on the Dog Aging Project with Audrey Ruple, Metcalf Professor of Veterinary Medical Informatics and co-principal investigator for the Dog Aging Project, talks about the personal and the scholarly in her TEDx talk, discussing her relationship with her own dogs and what research has uncovered about the relationship between humans and dogs going back many thousands of years. 

“Dogs were the first animals we domesticated,” Sexton said. “Once that happened, we domesticated other animals and plants, and settled into agrarian societies. We domesticated horses for transport and trade and then you see how it spirals out from there.”

Sexton, who received her doctorate from George Washington University in human paleobiology with a focus on comparative animal behavior and communication, said the study of canine cognition and how it interlinks with human culture and development is a growing field.

“I’m really grateful for what a lot of my colleagues have done in approaching these questions from multiple disciplines,” Sexton said. “Many of the more advanced researchers didn’t come from the veterinary side, they’ve come from psychology or sociology or anthropology. Learning from evolutionary biologists was very helpful for me, as it gave that perspective, the longer view of how this has all come to pass and where we are now, especially as I delve into the One Health aspects of the human-canine bond.” 

From Sexton’s viewpoint, looking into the soulful gaze of one of her own dogs is looking into the gaze of humankind.

“Just as dogs are dogs because of us,” Sexton said, “we are able to be human because of them.”

Written by Kevin Myatt for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing