Why Dogs Look like Their Owners and Cats Don’t

It has been a source of fascination for a long time as to why people look like their dogs. However, I don’t think we ever read about cat owners looking like their cats. The main reason why people actually do sometimes look like they’re dogs is because there are far more dog breeds than cat breeds and the differences in appearance between the dog breeds is far greater than the differences between the smaller number of cat breeds.

Elle Macpherson and her dog Bella looking alike
Elle Macpherson and her dog Bella looking alike
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Because their is such a wide variety of appearances amongst the dog breeds there is a great opportunity for people to match up their appearance with their dogs.

For the statistically minded there are around 400 dog breeds and around 100 or so cat breeds although it is difficult to give precise figures for various reasons.

In addition the domestication of the dog began much longer ago than the domestication of the cat (up to 50,000 years ago for the dog compared to 9,500 years ago for the cat).

These factors have resulted in the facial appearance of dogs being widely different, much more so than is the case for cats. It is probably fair to say that there are more dog breeds which have been bred to extreme than is the case with cats. Extreme breeding leads to strong facial features and huge differences in size which means dog breeds are well differentiated in terms of appearance, more so than for cats.

So the ground work for the opportunity for people to match up their appearance to their dogs is in place. The question that remains is why do people like to select dogs which look like themselves?

The current thinking is as follows. One theory is that humans tend to notice the rare cases of resemblance between people and their dogs. This is called “confirmation bias”. What it is stating is that, in actual fact, people do not look like their dogs; it is just that we think they do.

However, Japanese psychologists have entered the debate in suggesting that there is some truth to the idea that dogs and owners look alike. They discovered that people who did not know the dog owners in a test were able to match up these owners with their pets with remarkable accuracy (80% success rate).  It also appears that the eyes of the dog are crucial.

In the Japanese study, published in Anthrozoös, 502 students were presented with two sheets. Each of the sheets showed 20 photographic sets of dog-human pairs. The faces of the person and the dog was side-by-side. On one sheet the dogs had been matched to their real owners and on the other sheet they had been randomly selected. The students were also shown pictures in which only parts of the owner’s and dog’s faces were shown i.e. the mouth or the eyes.

As mentioned, the students were able to match up the owners with their dogs with an 80% success rate but what is remarkable is that they managed a 73% success rate when they were only shown the eyes of the dogs and their owners.

The theory why there was a match up between the eyes of the owners and their dogs is because, to quote:

“There is a remarkable amount of variety in eye shape…You have the big round eyes of the spaniel, almond-eyed retrievers and gorgeous human-shaped eyes on whippets.”(Prof Emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia)

Prof Coren also found that when women were shown portraits of dogs and asked how friendly and loyal they looked, they tended to favour those that where similar around the head and ears to their own hairstyles. For example people with long hair found springer spaniels friendlier while short-haired people with visible ears preferred the “cock-eared” Siberian Husky.

The above then establishes that people do select dogs that look like themselves but why?  Well, Prof Coren says the following about that:

“There’s a phenomenon in psychology called ‘mere exposure effect’… If you see something a lot, you tend to develop affection for it.  One of the things we see all the time is our own face.”

It would seem, therefore, that people select a dog that looks like them because they have an affection for themselves and therefore they have an affection for a dog that looks like them.

One final word about cats. I am sure that on occasion cat owners do look like their cat but it must be much rarer.

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