By Sharna Johnson
It’s one of those little ironies that has become a punch line of sorts — fat ones, skinny ones, short-snouted ones … somehow, dogs and their owners share a resemblance to one another.
The fact that dogs often share striking similarities to the people who love them is such an oddity, it has been the theme of contests and celebrity magazine photo spreads for years, never ceasing to provide laughs and awe.
The thing that makes it ironic — is the fact that two species with distinct characteristics could somehow align like natural-born kin — begs to be understood.
What makes the most logical sense is that in selecting their pets, people clue in on something familiar, responding to characteristics they feel comfortable with and can relate to.
For instance, a person with a round, full face and a shorter, wider nose may relate better to a pug, where as a more angular-faced person may prefer the expressions that cross the pointed nose of an Afghan hound.
Japanese psychologist Sadahiko Nakajima has spent a significant chunk of time trying to determine how strong those appearances really are, and what he has found might be surprising.
In 2009, Nakajima and his colleagues found that when presented with 20 photos of real dog-owner pairs and 20 photos of fake dog-owner pairs, two thirds of participants were able to see past the decoys and successfully match owners with their real dogs.
While surprising, the results left them with further questions, namely how and why people were able to zero in on traits that led them to connect a dog with it’s owner based solely on appearance.
Seeking to answer those questions, a second study, published in 2013, delved deeper into exactly what people were using for clues to make the connections.
This time, researchers again showed participants photos of dogs and owners, and, as in the first study, when shown a set of fake versus real pairings, an overwhelming majority were still able to point to the real pairings, confirming the results of the original test and the fact that people have an uncanny ability to connect pooches with their owners based on looks.
However, when researchers changed things up, an altogether new picture began to emerge.
In the new test, one set of the photos had black boxes strategically placed over the mouths of the people and dogs while a second set had boxes covering the eyes.
When participants looked at the photos with black boxes covering the mouths of dogs and owners, their accuracy at pairing them remained consistent with the previous two tests.
However, when shown photos with the eyes of the people and their dogs blocked from view, the participant’s accuracy in matching the pairs plummeted from as much as 75 percent to around 50 percent.
“These results strongly suggest that dogs and owners resemble each other in the eye region,” researchers concluded in their final report, also noting the results eliminated things such as hairstyle, obesity or stereotypical concepts of dog ownership as reasons for a resemblance between people and their pets.
As to why the key to resemblance is in the eyes, that question will undoubtedly take further study.
Known as windows to the soul, perhaps the eyes are more of a window to the collection of things beneath the surface — mannerisms, experience, personality, and essentially one’s “self” – a life, experience and understanding that dogs and their people come to share.
If that is indeed the case, having a plump, squished-face dog should bring no shame, assuming the eyes tell tale worth being proud of.
Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.