Why You Look Like Your Dog

Behind the phenomenon of pet/owner resemblance


Last fall, a 77-pound dachshund named Obie visited the Today show for a spot on pet obesity. “No doubt,” a veterinarian announced to Al Roker as they stood over the table where Obie lay splayed like a pork loin, “this is the biggest dachshund I’ve ever seen.” Roker wondered aloud whether the biggest dachshund might be part of a bigger problem: “Is there a correlation between overweight pet owners and overweight pets?”

Plenty of research has established that pets are good for our health; less is known about whether we might be bad for theirs. But Roker may be on to something. According to one recent study, as U.S. obesity rates shot up over the past half century, the average weight of animals living among humans also increased [1]. Another study linked pet owners’ body mass indexes to their dogs’ fat accumulation [2], backing up a 1970 survey that found that obese dogs were much more likely to be owned by obese people than by those “of normal physique” [3].

Could there be something to the old adage that people resemble their pets? The phenomenon has been amply documented. Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that strangers can match photos of dogs with photos of their owners at a rate well above chance [4]. Perhaps people are drawn to animals that look like them. In a study of female college students, those with longer hair judged flop-eared dogs—spaniels, beagles—to be more attractive, friendly, and intelligent than dogs with pointy ears; women with shorter hair concluded the opposite [5]. And the apparent affinity between owners and pets is more than fur-deep: One analysis found self-described “dog people” to be less neurotic than “cat people,” who were more curious [6]. Another study, which cross-referenced personality-test scores and breed preferences, noted that disagreeable people favored aggressive dogs [7].

While the Law of Attraction—like attracts like, or in this case, adopts like—might explain some of these similarities, there's reason to think pets also emulate their owners. A 2011 study found that dogs tasked with opening a door preferred whichever of two methods of door-opening they had just observed their owners use (head or hands/paws), even when offered a treat for the opposite choice. Researchers concluded that dogs possess an “automatic imitation” instinct that can override both natural behavior and self-interest [8]. Dogs are also more susceptible to yawn contagion (an indicator of social attachment) when it’s their master, rather than a stranger, doing the yawning [9].

Which brings us, finally, to kiss contagion: thanks in part to the slobbery smooches canines lavish on their human companions, people appear to share more types of skin bacteria with their dogs than with their own children [10].

The Studies:

[1] Klimentidis et al., “Canaries in the Coal Mine” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, June 2011)

[2] Nijland et al., “Overweight in Dogs, but Not in Cats, Is Related to Overweight in Their Owners” (Public Health Nutrition, Jan. 2010)

[3] Mason, “Obesity in Pet Dogs” (The Veterinary Record, May 1970)

[4] Nakajima et al., “Dogs Look Like Their Owners” (Anthrozoös, June 2009)

[5] Coren, “Do People Look Like Their Dogs?” (Anthrozoös, 1999)

[6] Gosling et al., “Personalities of Self-Identified ‘Dog People’ and ‘Cat People’ ” (Anthrozoös, Sept. 2010)

[7] Egan and MacKenzie, “Does Personality, Delinquency, or Mating Effort Necessarily Dictate a Preference for an Aggressive Dog?” (Anthrozoös, June 2012)

[8] Range et al., “Automatic Imitation in Dogs” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Jan. 2011)

[9] Romero et al., “Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy” (plos One, Aug. 2013)

[10] Song et al., “Cohabiting Family Members Share Microbiota With One Another and With Their Dogs” (eLife, April 2013)