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The Myth of Winston Churchill's Bulldog

The Churchill bulldog myth comes from a belief that dogs resemble their owners.

Key points

  • One maxim of folk psychology suggests that people choose to own dogs that look like themselves and there is a bit of evidence to support this.
  • Winston Churchill in his later years had facial features that looked like a bulldog's, so people presume that his pet was an English bulldog.
  • Churchill's favorite dog looked nothing like him but was instead a poodle named Rufus.
UK Government/Wiki Media and Fuzzy Thompson/Flickr
Winston Churchill and English Bulldog
Source: UK Government/Wiki Media and Fuzzy Thompson/Flickr

If you ask most people, "What kind of dog did Winston Churchill own?" you will usually confidently be told that his favorite pet dog was a bulldog. Winston Churchill was, of course, the British prime minister who helped to guide England through the dark days of World War II. The fact that Churchill, in his mature years, looked like a bulldog is indisputable. The round, full face, the flattened features, the jowly cheeks, the large, wide mouth, and the skin folds around the eyes all look much like those of the English bulldog. Also, during the war years, the mascot of the UK was the bulldog. However, Churchill's bulldog is a myth. The belief that he had such a pet is based upon the application of folk psychology.

What is folk psychology?

Most of the principles of folk psychology are stored in pithy sayings, proverbs, or aphorisms, such as "Birds of a feather flock together," "Variety is the spice of life," or "Like father, like son." These sayings are frequently used by your Aunt Sylvia or Uncle Milton to convey their views of the world and to explain people's various behaviors. Psychologists (of the research variety, rather than the folk variety) are often quite suspicious of most of the information in folk psychology because it seems to be set up to cover every possible outcome. Thus, the folk psychologist assures you, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," when your true love is found to be pining away for you while you were on an extended business trip, but that same folk psychologist would have used the maxim, "Out of sight, out of mind," if your true love was cavorting with a blonde beach bum while you were away. One of the most interesting aspects of folk psychology is that it is so robust and long-lasting, despite numerous instances where it can be shown to be wrong or irrelevant.

There is extensive folk psychology about dog behavior, such as "Barking dogs don't bite," and there is even more about the relationship between dogs and humans, such as "A dog is man's best friend." The aspect of folk psychology that brings us back to Winston Churchill is the persistent belief that either "People select dogs that look like themselves" or the more incredible statement that "People eventually come to look like their dogs."

Do people resemble their dogs?

Surprisingly there actually is some research suggesting that people have a preference for dogs that look a bit like them. In one example, researchers photographed dogs and their owners separately. They then showed a photo of the person along with a pair of photos, one of which was a dog owned by the individual in the photo and the other of which was not. People were asked to guess which dog belonged to the person in the snapshot, and surprisingly, to a small degree, they did better than chance correctly matching purebred dogs with their owners.

Still, one must be careful and conservative in advocating the claim that we look like our dogs. Some cases that are offered as evidence for this theory are often flawed. Like folk music, folk psychology is often a bit out of tune, as is shown in the case of the former British Prime Minister.

Churchill’s favorite dog

Winston Churchill's own dog certainly had not been selected on the basis of visual similarities. If you could have looked into Churchill's bedroom, curled up around his feet on the bed, you would have found a poodle named Rufus. With his narrow, pointed muzzle, clean, unwrinkled face, and close-set eyes, this dog did not look even faintly like his master. Yet, this was a truly loved companion. Rufus was with Churchill on many of his trips and even hobnobbed with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Scottish Terrier, Fala, on several occasions. Once, the two dogs played together below decks on the U.S. battleship Augusta while their masters discussed major policy matters that would determine the course of World War II.

Churchill would often talk to Rufus in much the same playful manner and tone that he used when talking to his children. At such times, he would sit the dog on his lap and begin a discourse with something like: "Listen to me, dear. You might learn something, and then later you may offer your personal comments and insights." It was never clear whether the comments that followed were intended only for the dog or were actually aimed at human listeners who might be nearby.

Sometimes, it was quite obvious that the dog was the sole focus of his conversation. For instance, one evening, Churchill was at home, and as an entertainment, the film Oliver Twist was being shown. As was usually the case, Rufus was seated on his master's lap. The film had just reached the point where the evil Bill Sikes is about to drown his dog (the only living thing that had remained loyal to him). As this heart-rending scene began to unfold, Churchill reached over and covered Rufus's eyes. "Don't look now, dear. I'll tell you about it afterward," he was heard whispering to the dog.

One might suggest that a poodle like Rufus was not actually Churchill's choice for a favorite dog but rather some accidental match that just worked out somehow. This, however, is not true. Rufus was Churchill's own choice, and when the original Rufus died, he filled the void left by him with another poodle who looked virtually identical to the first. This new dog was even given the same name. "He is named Rufus II—but the II is silent," Churchill explained.

Obviously, folk psychologists should look at cases other than Winston Churchill's if they want to make a strong case that people choose dogs that look like themselves. While there may be some inclination for us to favor dogs whose appearance contains some elements that are vaguely similar to our own facial features, this is just a tendency, not a compelling force.

A footnote

Just as an interesting footnote: When Churchill was in his 80s, he developed a fondness for a cat named Jock, who bore no resemblance to him at all. When he sold his family home, Chartwell, to the National Trust, it was requested that there always be a marmalade cat named Jock with a "white bib and four white socks in comfortable residence" there. The trust continues to honor the family's request, and the current cat is Jock VII (and I am sure that if Churchill were alive, he would add, "The VII is silent").

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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.