Humans find flat-faced dogs cute because they plead for help like babies, a study has found.
This has often been attributed to their large eyes and baby-like face, which has evolved to trick the human brain into behaving like a parent would to a baby.
Now, a study from Hungary has found these short-nosed breeds are more likely to ask for help from people instead of solving problems themselves.
The overt and frequent display of helplessness is thought to increase bonding with humans and therefore boost the sense of dependency, attachment and love.
The task was also given to 13 Hungarian Mudi dogs, which have a normal-sized snout.
The flat-faced animals were slower to get the food, less successful, and more willing to stare at humans for help, data showed.
“The short-headed breeds were less successful but oriented much more toward humans than mesocephalic dogs,” the scientists from ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, in Budapest, wrote in their paper, published in Scientific Reports.
“Owners might interpret these behaviours as ‘helplessness’ and dependence.
“The results support the hypothesis that infant-like traits may be present not only in appearance but also in behaviour in brachycephalic breeds, eliciting caring behaviour in owners.”
Around one in four of the French and English bulldogs used their paws as well as their noses when tackling the box problem, compared with more than half of the Mudi dogs.
Nine out of 10 of the Mudi dogs had managed to find the food in the box in less than a minute, the scientists found, compared with just half of the bulldogs.
Bulldogs ‘more likely to look at people’
English and French bulldogs were also 4.16 and 4.49 times more likely, respectively, to look back at the people than Mudis.
The scientists said it was clear the bulldogs were more prone to turn to people for help as opposed to acting independently, but added that this dependence can be enhanced by various factors.
“On the one hand, small short-headed companion dogs could be genetically more inclined to act less independently (i.e. ‘baby-like’ or ‘helpless’) to elicit human care,” wrote the scientists.
“Such a trait would have a distinct advantage in an artificial selection context.
“On the other hand, it is possible that, mainly due to their physical appearance, owners treat brachycephalic dogs more like children; thus, they get more experience and positive feedback in communicative (‘help-seeking’) situations.”
Dr Dorottya Júlia Ujfalussy, study lead author, told The Telegraph: “Humans have an inborn nurturing tendency that is triggered by the so-called ‘baby schema’ (large, forward-facing eyes, round head and a short nose).
“This nurturing instinct is also triggered by dependent behaviour, such as helplessness and help-seeking.
“It seems from our findings that brachycephalic breeds not only have a ‘baby schema’ appearance but also act somewhat baby-like, triggering the nurturing instinct, which then contributes to a stronger dog-owner bond.”
She added that the bulldogs are not necessarily less smart than the other dogs, but have mastered a different strategy.
“Using a social strategy to make someone else solve problems for you is a very smart strategy, indeed,” said Dr Ujfalussy.
“Based on our results on how little time bulldogs spent orienting at the problem box, and how much time orienting at their owner, I would say they are just less willing to try.”
Men ‘impervious’ to large eyes
Another recent study looked at the role of eye size in dogs to see if the infant-like bulging faces of brachycephalic breeds do invoke a sense of paternalism in owners.
The study found that larger eyes do make people more inclined to treat the dogs like a baby, but this only works in women.
Men were impervious to the infantilising effect of large eyes.
Scientists analysed men’s and women’s voices while talking to dogs with varying eye sizes.
Larger eyes were more likely to make a woman slip into “pet-directed speech”, the vocal pattern akin to “baby talk”, which is characterised by extreme high and low pitch.
Men, however, were unlikely to adopt “doggy talk” when talking to dogs with eyes of any size.