When I started this blog, the title seemed catchy and the question of whether owners and dogs look alike seemed like a novelty posting at best. I’d seen the photos done by artist Sebastian Magnani of dogs and their owners, their cleverness both entertaining and thought-provoking. And I’d seen artist William Wegman’s famous Weimaraner dog photos as early as the 1980s, in which he portrayed his dogs “as if” human. (I’d also seen his his video with his longtime canine companion, Man Ray, in which he corrects his dog’s spelling test. Watching it reminds me of the way I used to talk to my baby doll when I was a child.)
But I never thought that, through blogging, I’d find a community for myself around dogs, a deepened interest, nor did I think I’d inspire outside interest in reading what I post. Yet from the moment I shared a dog interest with others—friends, family, researchers, owners, twitterers—I’ve been welcomed and furthermore given permission to share stories of ongoing canine researchers, dog breeders, or the personal anecdotes of owners that shed some light on why we love our dogs so much.
And so it’s time at last to answer that fundamental question that I ask: Do We (Actually) Resemble Our Dogs?
Psychology professor and author Stanley Coren, who writes the great post Canine Corner for Psychology Today magazine, says yes we do. He put the hypothesis to the test first back in 1999 with a study in which he asked Do dogs look like their owners?Coren tested 261 women on their preferences for long-eared, or framed dog faces (beagles, and spaniels) versus prick-eared dogs (Siberian Huskey, Basenjai). It turns out these participants showed a preference for dogs that looked like themselves. In fact, they significantly chose dogs whose facial framing resembled their own—women with long hair chose long ears, women with short hair chose prick ears.
Coren, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, says this is a simple psychological affect known as the Mere Exposure Effect.
“Basically, this means that people like familiar objects more than things that they have not seen before,” he writes in the study.
So, if you look in the mirror every day (which we do) you are used to seeing a certain framed face, or nasal prominence, or large eyes, perhaps, you come to find it subliminally familiar (kind of like the way the names Bush and Clinton are in our 2016 presidential election).
From L to R, Ken & Max, Tina & Jackson, Dane & Phinneas, and the Baxters.
There are other studies as well. In 2004 a studydone by researchers at the University of California-San Diego asked participants to match photographs of 45 owners with their dogs, both purebreds and non-purebreds, taken at dog parks. Participants successfully matched the purebred dogs with their owners. And In 2013 a study done by Japanese psychologist Sadahiko Nakajima, of Kwansei Gakuin University, also tested photos of 40 dogs and their 40 owners. When he placed special emphasis on the owners’ and dogs’ eyes, the pairs were successfully matched 80 percent of the time, a statistic well beyond what would be coincidence.
Facial similarities notwithstanding, dogs resemble humans as well in ability, intelligence, and awareness, too. According to Coren, dogs have proven themselves in testing to have about the same intelligence as a new toddler, meaning probably equivalent to that of a 2-year-old. In his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Coren includes a 12-part Canine IQ test for dogs that measures their adaptive intelligence. Andrea Horowitz, in her book Inside of a Dog, spells out some of the dogs’ abilities that, in my opinion, make them seem very like a 2-year-old, indeed:
dogs explore with their mouth, and then with their paws. They will try to put something in their mouth rather than “size up” whether it will fit.
dogs watch others’ behavior as a means of accomplishing something themselves; i.e., they imitate as a means to an end.
dogs do not just imitate; they also understand the concept of imitate. Horowitz describes a study in which a dog follows its human through various tasks that include pushing a swing (the dog did it with its nose), throwing a bottle (the dog did it with its mouth), and walking in a circle around a person.
dogs have a preference for novel objects (neophilia), which means they will want the “new” toy over the old toy. This is why they frequently drop the stick they have to try and get the stick that another dog carries.
dogs possess “theory of mind,” meaning they have the ability to understand that other creatures have different motivations from theirs. This ability, “more than any other skill, habit or behavior” writes Horowitz, “captures what it is like to be a human.”
And one last thing I want to throw in. As happens between a parent and a toddler, gazing into the eyes of our dog, or participating in the “mutual gaze,” as it is called, causes the release of oxytocin. In both dogs AND humans. This is a real phenomenon.
BUT WHY …
But why is all this science about the human-dog bond, and the cognitive testing, happening now, when dogs have been our “domesticated partners” for maybe 14,000 years? Why are there countless books (and blogs) about dogs? Why do Sydney Coren, Andrea Horowitz, Julie Hecht, and others want to study them in relation to us? And why (I wonder) did I choose them as my topic?
Inter-species-wise, our relationship with dogs seems to be increasing in its complexity. When I was young, dogs were just dogs. They were valuable on farms as work dogs or in suburbs as playmates for children, and they were usually just one, the family pet. But nowadays, dogs are many more things to us, and consequently they have more significance. It wasn’t until I read Alexandra Horowitz’ book last winter than I started to deeply consider dogs as beings unto themselves, and to believe that they adapted to domesticity because they saw something in humans that could benefit their species. I am sure many scientists find that crazy. But there has to be a reason that dogs come when we call, rather than following the call of the wild, and some equally deep reason why we’ve chosen to entrust them with sniffing out bombs to save our lives, while they’ve entrusted us with opening the refrigerator or cupboard doors to get them food they need but can’t reach. And why we continue to create more rights for them under the laws.
L to R, Kelly & Kazu, Corrine & Hazel, Kevin & Bruno, Susan & Rocco
Author David Grimm, in his recent book Citizen Canine, notes that dog and cat ownership has quadrupled since the 1960s, and our pet expenditures have more than doubled since 2000. That is pretty incredible, when you stop to think about it.
I don’t have the time to research why this has happened, but I think some things that have caused this dog uptick are a rise in leisure income, the phenomena of the single-person family, and the growth of the nation’s aged population. Dogs can make great alternatives to children, boyfriends, or girlfriends. Dogs are also good companions for those who are left alone when family members have scattered, and who are getting on in years. In essence, dogs somehow substitute for the other things missing because of these widespread social situations.
Back in the 1960s, I don’t remember such emphasis on making dogs more in our own image, either. But since our culture has changed, and we have begun to make dogs “family” members who carry more social responsibility, we have also started to show an interest in having dogs look more like us, act more like us, and, in essence BE more like us. That’s what we want, because I think it helps us be comfortable assigning dogs to these new roles.
I will use myself as an example. I’m an empty nester with a spouse who is gone four days a week. This summer I’ve watched my daughter’s two dogs, and they have endeared themselves to me and my need for companionship, as I have nurtured them endlessly. After just six weeks, ask me anything about them and I can tell you as if they were my children. (Ragazzo is quiet in the house, but once he gets outside and sees other dogs, he barks and strains to get a sniff of them. Day-Ay, however, howls inside the house the moment she senses I am about to take her out.)
We are also a species who love to assert our dominance. I guess we get a thrill from imagining other animals in our image. That could be why we want to look like our dogs, or vice versa, and perhaps (of course we couldn’t know) our dogs want to look like us, too.
So, why not enjoy this century of the dog? Everybody is in the game. And I mean everybody. Even The New York Times. In February, it ran this Westminster Dog Show Look-A-Likes Quiz in the on line edition of the paper, asking do the purbreeds’ owners look like their dogs? Go ahead. Click on the link and take it. I know you want to.
Who can resist the fun of seeing if we do, in fact, resemble our dogs?