Are We Choosing a Family Resemblance?

When you see a tall thin woman with long red hair walking her dog — an Irish Setter — you may smile to yourself thinking they kind of look alike. That’s no fluke. Many people, including scientists, have noticed that often dogs look like their owners. It’s a funny phenomenon that has inspired books, contests, and even scientific studies.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., was at a dog show where she saw dogs and owners sitting side by side and she was struck by how much they looked alike. She grabbed a camera and started taking photos. She later wrote the book, Do You Look like Your Dog?

“I think there is a fairly simple psychological explanation,” she writes in her book, “Just as people gravitate toward other people with whom they share an affinity, so it follows that people will choose to own pets with whom they feel some kind of connection. Sometimes the choice is very conscious and deliberate, sometimes subconscious, but often people seek out pets who bear some resemblance to themselves, since physical likeness breeds a natural sense of familiarity.”

Dr. Nicholas Christenfeld, Professor of Psychology at UC San Diego, conducted a test in a San Diego dog park where he took photos of dogs and owners separately, then asked people to match photos of dogs to photos of their owners. People were able to accurately match owner to dog 2/3 of the time — if the dog was a pure breed. They weren’t quite so accurate with the mutts!

Christenfeld says the accuracy in pure breeds is due to selection — when people choose a pure breed, they know what the dog will look like as an adult. With a mutt, you don’t know what he’ll end up looking like. Also, people often acquire mixed breeds accidentally or spontaneously, so it’s not as if they were seeking out that particular type of dog.

In Gina Graham Scott’s research, she found that some breeds of dogs look like their owners more than others. The Golden Retriever tops the list of look-alikes, followed by Collies, Irish Wolfhounds, Lhasa Apsos, and Poodles.

Dog Is Adopted Because of Family Resemblance

Of course, it's possible for mixed breed dogs to look like their owners too — and in one instance we know of, the family resemblance caused a foster dog to become an adopted dog! Quinn, a tiny pup was fostered as a “trial run” for a family who wasn’t sure if they could keep a dog due to allergies. They took home this little long-legged Rat Terrier/Chihuahua/Dachshund mix, from a rescue group event. She was a bit of a handful, but after a week, the mother noticed that Quinn looked and acted so much like her daughter, Teà, that she couldn’t give the dog back.

Both Quinn and Teà had an unusual “miniature” quality to them. They are both proportioned like a tall skinny person/large spindly dog, only shrunk down to a tiny size. Both had a habit of squirming, an affinity for soft, squishy places, and unusual flexibility. “If Teà were a dog, she’d be Quinn,” her mother said. How could they not keep her?