Why Dogs Resemble Their Pet Parents

Research results show what characteristic makes us look like our dogs.

By Cari Jorgensen | Posted: August 26, 2014, 3 p.m. PST

Being compared to a dog isn’t usually a good thing, even though dogs are loving, loyal and protective. In fact, it’s often meant as an insult. Dog lovers know that "bitch” is just another term for female dog, but when it’s used to reference a female human, it takes on quite another meaning.

So what if someone said to you, "You look just like your dog!”? While none of us are striving for poodle haircuts, the long bodies and short legs of a Dachshund or the big ears of a Chihuahua (I know I wouldn’t want my blue pit bull’s giant head), we’ve probably noticed that whoever said we look like our dog is right.


Pet and Parent 

But what is it that makes a dog and his pet parent look alike?

In an effort to find out, researchers asked a survey group to match photos of random people with the photos of their dogs. Those in the survey group were almost always right. Could it be because women often choose smaller dogs while men often choose larger dogs? Was it because pet parents with blond hair went with light-haired dogs? Or plump pet parents often had plump pets? However, when researchers took such characteristics out of the equation, people were still accurately able to match dogs with their pet parents.

So what defining characteristic tells a stranger that this dog belongs to this person?

Psychologist Sadahiko Nakajima from Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan resolved to find out. In his research, he discovered that all participants needed were photos of humans’ and dogs’ faces to be able to tell which dog belonged to which person. He also discovered that participants were able to tell when his research team paired people with dogs that weren’t theirs.

It appeared that it had something to do with facial appearance.

In Nakajima’s latest research, which he published in multidisciplinary journal Anthrozoös, he looked at every facial feature possibility. He gathered 502 university undergrads and showed them a series of photos. Each photo was a headshot, all were the same size, the same angle. Some photos correctly paired dog and owner, while others did not. Several different breeds of dogs were represented. Participants had to choose which set had the most physical resemblances.

Easy enough, if not for Nakajima’s twist: each participant was randomly assigned a masking photo condition. The five masking photo conditions were: 1) no mask, as in no part of the dog’s or person’s face was obscured; 2) eye mask, in which a black bar covered the person’s eyes; 3) dog eye mask, in which the black bar covered the dog’s eyes; 4) eye only, where nothing but the person’s and dog’s eyes could be seen; and 5) mouth mask, where the black bar covered the mouths of the person.


Dog Study  Photo Courtesy of Sadahiko Nakajima.

Participants were then asked to choose which pairs of dogs and people were real pets and owners.

Those who were assigned the no mask photos had an 80% accuracy rate. Those with the mouth mask photos were correct 73% of the time. When only the eyes were showing, participants chose correctly 74% of the time. However, when the eyes were covered (either the dog’s or the human’s), the percentage dropped significantly, leading Nakajima to believe that it’s all about the eyes.

Do you and your dog look alike? Post photos to our Facebook page and use the hashtags #DogLookAlike and #DogFancy.

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