There is new evidence suggesting we were right all along: dogs do, in fact, resemble their owners. Let’s put it to the test with a little game: each dog below is owned by the person either to his right or to his left (A or B). Try to identify the correct owner.
Answers: 1=A, 2=B, 3=A, 4=B, 5=B 6=A, 7=A, 8=B, 9=B 10=B, 11=B, 12=A, 13=A, 14=B
(You can find photos of all the owners (and some false owners) with their dogs at the end of the article.)
How did you do? When this experiment is done in a proper, scientific way, people identify the correct dog-owner pair 65-80% of the time. However, if your score fell outside this range, you can probably attribute this to my entirely non-scientific method of procuring photos from my Facebook friends. If you did well, according to new research, the chances are good that the similarity you were detecting was in the eyes of dog and owner.
That dogs look like their owners is something humans have probably been thinking since the first time one of our rugged ancestors adopted a scraggly gray wolf puppy more than 15,000 years ago. In fact, in 2004, researchers showed that dogs do indeed resemble their owners, at least in the case of purebred dogs. This is perhaps why the latest research on dog-owner resemblance is not found in Nature or Science. Rather, we find this most recent contribution in a very distant relative, Anthrozoos. Surprisingly, Harvard doesn’t subscribe to Anthrozoos, forcing curious graduate students such as myself to foot the bill. Given the choice between reading the article for $32.99 and dinner at the Thai Hut, I chose to forego the article. Thus, my summary is the best I can glean from the abstract and the analyses of other people who might rank knowledge over food.
The author enlisted the help of 502 undergraduate students for his experiment. These students were presented with two sets of dog-owner pairs, one of which was a true pair, and one of which was false. The author used 20 different dog-owner sets, varying the breed of the dog. Up to 80% of students could identify the correct pair, and this dropped by only 7% when the author blacked out the mouth of the owners. However, the author found that when the eyes of the owner were blacked out, correct identification fell to the rate you might expect had the scientists used gerbils to match dog to owner. Further, if the author only showed the eyes of the owners, a majority of the students (74%) still correctly identified the dog-owner match. The author concludes from this that dogs resemble their owners in the eyes.
I don’t think this should really come as any great surprise to anyone. For humans, eye contact signals connection to another human being or an animal, and we seek out this connection when meeting or speaking with either humans or animals. Scientists have even found that humans recognize other humans principally by the eyes, secondarily by mouth and nose. Moreover, the eyes of a dog are arguably their most human characteristic. If I resemble my dog in appearance at all, I sure hope it’s his eyes and not because I have a long snout, pointy ears or spots like a Holstein.
This doesn’t really explain why we want a dog that has our eyes, but the bottom line is that we humans love things that look and act like us. In fact, chances are, you not only resemble your dog but also your friends and your mate. Research has shown that our friends are as genetically similar to us as fourth cousins. And as much as you’d like to think that you aren’t attracted to yourself, researchers have found that we are sexually attracted to people who look similar to us (5). Basically, we think we’re hot stuff. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when I look into a cage at the pound and see my own bright eyes staring back at me, I certainly won’t leave behind that dog with the gorgeous eyes.