My dog Millie, a five-pound Yorkshire Terrier, and I do almost everything together. We hike, camp, watch sporting events, grocery shop, spend all day at the bookstore and visit research labs. Everywhere we go, people are attracted to her; they want to hold her, pet her or just say hi. Why do so many people think she is so cute? Is she perceived as cute because of her looks or her behavior? As it turns out, cuteness is influenced by both physical attributes and behavior, factors that affect the perception of cuteness in a variety of animal species.
Like many infant animals, babies and puppies have several things in common: large heads, round faces, big eyes. These appealing traits have a name: Kindchenschema (baby schema). A concept introduced by Konrad Lorenz in 1942, baby schema is defined as “a set of infantile physical characteristics ... [that] motivates caretaking behavior in other individuals, with the evolutionary function of enhancing offspring survival.”
Research by Kringelbach and others suggests that this baby schema may extend beyond physical characteristics to include “positive infant sounds and smells.” It’s not hard to imagine that these findings could also be applicable to puppy whimpering and barking, and that unmistakable puppy odor.
A preference for baby schema occurs early in human development. In a study by Borgi et al. (2014), researchers used eye tracking to determine that both children and adults looked longer at pictures rated high in infantile characteristics than at those rated low. This held true for pictures of humans, cats and dogs. And as research by Dekay and McClelland has shown, humans like animals who appear more humanlike; our concern for the well-being of a species correlates strongly with the species’ similarity to ourselves.
This partially explains why pet owners have a tendency to anthropomorphize their companion animals. I often talk to Millie as though she can understand every word, and I put her in her bed and arrange everything for her comfort much as I did for my son when he was small. Some persist in treating their dogs like children even when it clearly aggravates the dog. Although it might not bother all dogs, most dogs you see wearing cute clothing and bows in their hair would probably prefer no clothing or no bows. (When groomers put a bow on Millie, she has a fit and usually manages to remove it on the car ride home.)
Behaviors such as hand shaking, rolling over, speaking on command or engaging in unusual tricks also influence our perception of a dog’s cuteness. Conversely, specific behaviors can also detract from a dog’s cuteness quota. Excessive barking, aggression or chewing everything in sight tends to diminish our perception of exactly how cute a dog is.
This biological hardwiring has an evolutionary advantage. The human response to cuteness includes protective behavior, a willingness to care for the animal and increased attention, all things that can be good for the dog. Initially, I became interested in cuteness and its influence on humans after talking with a researcher at Eastern Kentucky University who studies perception. His work focuses on the affect of canine head tilt on a dog’s “cuteness” rating. One of the things he’s found is that the same dog can receive different ratings depending on the degree of tilt.
This type of research has direct application to the dog adoption process. As mentioned, cuteness induces protective behavior, which often leads to positive human-dog interactions. It follows that these feelings may result in a decision to adopt the dog who elicits them and to overlook those who don’t.
Because the well being of dogs is heavily dependent on their relationships with humans, it’s important to understand that these often-unconscious biases affect our choices. There’s nothing wrong with loving a cute dog—as I do Millie—but dogs of all sorts need love, and their value should not be determined by how cute we think they are.