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Flat-faced dogs are so popular because they have childlike traits

A recent study from Eötvös Loránd University has explored the question of why flat-faced dogs are so popular despite their major health risks. 

The results of the study suggest that flat-faced dogs such as pugs and bulldogs have infant-like traits and behaviors that humans find irresistible.

“Infant-like traits may be present not only in appearance but also in behavior in brachycephalic breeds, eliciting caring behavior in owners,” wrote the study authors.

Health issues

Pugs and French bulldogs, with their wrinkled faces and flat noses, have charmed their way into the hearts of many dog lovers

However, these brachycephalic breeds are also prone to severe health issues, raising questions about the seemingly paradoxical rise in their popularity. 

The term “brachycephalic” refers to breeds of dogs that have flattened faces and shortened muzzles, a result of selective breeding rather than natural evolution. 

Despite the known health risks, such as breathing and skin problems, these breeds have witnessed an unprecedented rise in ownership in recent years. 

The Kennel Club reported a 2,747-percent increase in registered French Bulldogs since 2004 in the UK alone.

The brachycephalic paradox

The researchers aimed to understand the so-called “brachycephalic paradox” – why these breeds continue to gain popularity despite well-documented welfare issues, high veterinary costs, and shorter lifespans. 

“The focus of this paper is the ‘kindchenschema’ effect (also known as the cute effect); a well-studied phenomenon in psychological research in which infantile features in images of both children and animals are regularly found to provoke positive and affectionate feelings in human observers, and to prompt careful and nurturant behaviors,” wrote the study authors.

“Our aim here is to discover whether relative muzzle shortening across a range of dog breeds is linked to the key facial features known to be appealing to, and to elicit nurturant behaviors in, human observers.” 

“Specifically, we sought to discover whether muzzle shortening in the sagittal plane of dogs’ heads (i.e. in profile) is statistically associated with known ‘kindchenschema’ features in the coronal plane (i.e. fronto-facial features such as the relative size of eyes and forehead).”

How the research was conducted 

The team used a unique experiment to compare 30 flat-faced dogs, including 15 English bulldogs and 15 French bulldogs, and 13 Hungarian Mudis, a breed with mid-length muzzles.

The dogs were presented with three boxes with different opening mechanisms, each containing a sausage. 

The animals had two minutes to open the boxes while both the experimenter and the owner stood out of direct sight. 

What the researchers learned 

Interestingly, Mudis were much more adept at solving the task, but the brachycephalic breeds were 4.5 times more likely to look back at the human observers for help.

This suggests that short-faced dogs have a tendency to seek out human assistance when faced with problems. As a result, the dogs may be perceived as helpless – forging a stronger bond with their owners. 

The kindchenschema effect

Furthermore, the assistance-seeking behavior of these dogs seems to be tied to the kindchenschema effect, just as the researchers had hypothesized.

The experts also confirmed that the short muzzle length in brachycephalic dogs correlates with more infant-like facial proportions.

Basic human instincts

Despite the public’s understanding of the adverse health impacts, the study suggests that the innate human tendency to care for creatures that appear helpless or childlike may override cognitive reasoning. 

The behaviors of flat-faced dogs that people interpret as helplessness and help- seeking – together with childlike looks – seem to activate our basic nurturing instinct.

“Humans find it very difficult to cognitively override strong instinctive predispositions and still choose brachycephalic breeds, disregarding future health and welfare issues,” wrote the researchers.

Paradoxical appeal 

This brings to light the ethical dilemma surrounding the demand for these breeds. While their “cute” features may be compelling, they also set the stage for a range of health problems.

“Recent research has indicated that many owners understand that brachycephalia can have adverse consequences for health but choose to keep such breeds anyway,” wrote the researchers.

“This may be partly due to the perceived positive behavioral traits of some of these breeds, with owners’ denial of their dogs’ health problems, or with the paradoxical appeal of disabled dogs.” 

“Either way, there is little doubt that some aspects of the appearance of brachycephalic animals is also a crucial driver of ownership.”

Study implications 

The study forces us to confront questions about responsible pet ownership and ethical breeding practices.  

Going forward, increased awareness and education are crucial for prospective pet owners to make informed decisions that consider the well-being of these beloved animals.

The research is published in the journal Nature.

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