A question that is often discussed throughout the canine world is ‘are dogs like their owners?’ You’ll often hear people say that dogs take after their owners. It’s difficult to disagree with this in my house; you’ll often find my dad asleep on the sofa of an evening with Buffy the Labrador lying upside-down on the floor next to him, both snoring like a pair of chainsaws. The debate really lies in whether dogs simply mimic their human family or if it’s a little more complex than that.
There have been a few different studies into whether we subconsciously choose dogs that are like us. Professor Stanley Coren led a project that surveyed women and assessed whether they preferred dogs that looked a certain way based on their hairstyles. He found that women with long hair covering their ears preferred dogs with longer, lop ears. Women with either short hair or hairstyles that exposed their ears tended towards dogs with pricked or smaller ears. This indicates that we do have a tendency to choose dogs that look in some way similar to us, whether we realise it or not.
Psychologists from the University of California tried a different experiment. They photographed dogs and their owners and then asked a number of people to match them. In a third of cases purebred dogs and their owners were correctly matched. This is interesting as it is often observed that people who choose specific breeds are more likely to select a breed based on its appearance and attributes and, as such, are likely to choose a dog who looks like them.
The science behind this is the idea of familiarity. Human beings have evolved to feel sympathy and an urge to protect and nurture things that look like small versions of ourselves, like baby humans. This has been credited as the reason that we also feel an affinity for baby animals; their eyes are proportionally larger than the rest of their heads, like in human babies, which makes them seem “cuter”. Familiarity is also a survival mechanism as the ability to recognise things aids memory, which is vital for navigation and analysis of situations, like identifying threats. This human preference of things that look familiar might explain why we tend to choose dogs who look like us to become part of the family.
Beyond physical appearance some dogs seem to mirror the personalities of their owners. Again, this seems more likely to be a case of selection based on compatibility. My friend Liz is extremely active, always on the go and rarely spotted out of her trainers or hiking boots so it makes sense that her dog Oscar is a Springer Spaniel. They are both friendly, energetic, bouncy types who love to be outdoors and get on well with everyone. It would have been peculiar if, say, she had a less active, smaller dog like a Chihuahua.
The point is that responsible dog owners will choose a dog whose temperament and qualities are compatible with their own lifestyles and personalities. People who choose mongrels are likely to have rescued them so the selection process is different. While mongrels are statistically shown to be less likely to physically resemble their owners than purebreds, they are often chosen for their individual personalities, meaning they are likely to be compatible with their new owners on that level and can come to resemble their owners more in over time.
There is, however, some debate about whether dogs do take on elements of their owners’ personalities and, if so, to what extent. While some scientists argue that dogs become more and more like their owners over time, others think that, whilst some mannerisms might be copied or learned, the dog is largely unaffected and governed mostly by its nature. It is interesting to note, however, that families with multiple dogs are less likely to observe similar characteristics in themselves and their dogs.
Animal lovers embrace their dogs and make them part of the family so it’s hardly surprising that we tend to see a little of ourselves in them, and maybe a little of them in us!