Awww, just look at him! How can you say no to that face?
Evidently, we can’t.
A recent study shows that puppy dog eyes beat tail wagging, along with any other cuteness factor, for boosting a dog’s adopt-ability. In a study where 27 different dogs, all up for adoption, were monitored with a tool specially designed to analyze doggy facial expressions, the results showed that those with more emotive, child-like faces were almost always chosen sooner than their more steely-gazed, yet tail-waggly, counterparts.
However, though this study is only a few months old, could this be yet another case of modern science proving something we have known for a long time?
People can learn a lot about how another person feels simply by looking them in the eyes — hence the old expression “eyes are the windows to the soul.” It is easy to tell if someone is engaged, bored, happy, upset, angry, or sleepy, by the way their eyes are moving. Given the way our brains decode the ocular cues of those people around us, it makes sense that our dogs would learn to harness the power of those particular eye movements that elicit from us a strong response.
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For thousands of years, domesticated dogs have relied on the generosity of humans to sustain themselves. The first dogs were initially thought to have hung around our settlements, waiting for permission to pick at our scraps. It follows suit that those dogs with the gentlest, most sympathetic features would have fared the best at this Dickensian game of “please, sir, can I have some more?”
So why do we value these characteristics above others? Paedomorphic (or child-like) characteristics show us that the dog is being submissive, which means that we recognize them — consciously or subconsciously– as not posing a threat and therefore fit to live among humans.
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The truth is that dogs with overt paedomorphic features are not necessarily any friendlier than those without; they are just better equipped to play off our sympathies. So, next time your pooch breaks out the old doe eyes around dinner time, know that it is thousands of years of genetic selection that gave them the power to tug at our heartstrings so effectively.
For a full write-up of the study, check PLOS One