I was recently asked to be a judge at a "Dog and Owner Look-Alike Contest" that was held at a weekend Pet Fair in support of animal shelters in the area. These are fun events, and people often dress up with clothing that matches the color and patterning of their dog's coat. Prior to the event I was interviewed by a local radio station and was asked if there is any science that supports the popular notion that people do to look like their dogs. I think that the interviewer was surprised to find that actually there is a little bit of data on the issue.
There is a psychological mechanism which explains why a person might choose a dog that looks similar to themselves, and it is subtle yet simple. The answer is familiarity (although in technical publications you might see this referred to as "the mere exposure effect"). Simply put, we like things that are familiar. This explains why we are so willing to read or view each new version of the King Arthur legend, or why people go back, year after year, to hear the same opera, and why radio stations that play only “oldies” are so popular. It also explains why people vote for actors, and the sons, daughters or wives of well known people without any knowledge of their actual competence for the elected position—it is simply because the name is so familiar that a positive feeling has grown up around it. One scientist demonstrated this in an amusing way. He showed people a series of Chinese characters, without any translations of them. When the people were later asked to guess what these characters actually meant, the ones that had been shown a number of times (so they were now familiar) were more likely to be “translated” by people as meaning something positive and favorable.
Of course the key thing determining whether a dog and its owner look-alike would be their faces. Our own face is something which we are quite familiar with. We see it in the mirror every morning as we shave, put on makeup, or comb our hair. We see images of our face thousands of times each year as we pass by various reflecting surfaces in the environment. Science, therefore, suggests that, as in the case of everything else that we have seen many times, we should be rather fond of it. It is also likely that we will also transfer some of that sentiment to anything that is similar enough to remind us of our face. Some psychologists have argued that that explains why children who look very much like one of their parents tend to favored and treated more lovingly by that parent. It might also provide a link to why people end up with dogs that look like themselves. If the general features of one breed of dog's face look something like the general features of our own face, then, all other things being equal, that breed should arouse a bit more of a warm and loving response on our part.
Since there had not been much scientific work done on the resemblance of dogs and their owners I conducted a study* in which I tested 104 women students enrolled at the University of British Columbia. First, they were shown slides containing portraits of four different dog breeds. Each portrait was simply the head of a dog looking toward the camera. The four dog breeds included an English Springer Spaniel, a Beagle, a Siberian Husky and a Basenji. For each dog, the women simply rated how much they liked the look of the dog, how friendly they thought it was, how loyal they thought it might be, and how intelligent it appeared to be. Afterwards I asked some questions about the women and their life style. As part of this, they were asked to look at a series of schematic sketches of hair styles and to indicate which was their own most typical hair style. I was not interested in details of their coiffure, but only in certain general characteristics. Specifically I divided these hair styles into two groups. The first group contained longer hair styles that covered the ears, while the second group contained shorter hair or longer hair that was pulled back, so that the woman's ears were visible. The results were rather interesting.
In general, women with longer hair covering their ears tended to prefer the Springer Spaniel and the Beagle, rating these breeds higher on the dimensions of likeable, friendly, loyal and intelligent. Women with shorter hair and visible ears tended to rate the Siberian Husky and the Basenji more highly on these same dimensions. The reason for this result may have to do with familiarity effects on liking. Longer hair on a woman forms a framing effect around her face, which is much the same as the framing effect caused by the longer, lopped ears of the spaniel or Beagle. Shorter hair gives more visible, unframed lines to the sides of the woman's face and allows her to see the tips of her own ears. Both the Siberian Husky and the Basenji lack the drooped ears that frame the face like long hair, and both have clearly visible pricked ears. Obviously we are not talking about an overpowering effect on preference since there were a number of women with short hair that preferred the long eared dogs and vice-versa. However, the size of this effect is large enough to be statistically reliable and could confirm the common belief that we look like our dogs to some degree.
Obviously my research was limited, given that variations of this sort in hairstyles are only sensible to talk about in women. Therefore Michael Roy and Nicholas Christenfeld, psychologists from the University of California at San Diego, decided to extend my research using another technique**. They photographed 45 dogs (25 purebreds and 22 mongrels) and their owners, separately. The researchers then showed 28 observers photos of the people, and asked them to guess which was most likely that person’s dog from a pair of pictures containing the owned dog and another. A dog was regarded as resembling its owner if a majority of judges matched the pair. The judges were able to correctly match purebred dogs with their owners in about two thirds of the cases. This seems to confirm that dogs and owners may tend to look alike.
It is always interesting to find cases where popular folklore is actually confirmed by science, but whether the facts support the validity of the idea or not, dog and owner look-alike contests seem to be popular and amusing events for both participants and audiences alike.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted, reposted without permission
* Coren, S. (1999). Do people look like their dogs? Anthrozoös, 12, 111-114.
** Roy, M.M., & Christenfeld, N.J.S. (2004). Do dogs resemble their owners? Psychological Science, 15, 361–363