The popularity of flat-faced — or “brachycephalic” — dog breeds could be explained by how they appear more helpless and infant-like to us.
This is the conclusion of a team of researchers from Hungary who found that flat-faced dogs turn to their owners more often when undertaking a treat-retrieving puzzle task than their longer-muzzled counterparts.
The brachycephalic breeds were also less successful at the tests — compounding the ability to perceive them as needing our help.
It is unclear, however, whether flat-faced dogs are genetically predisposed to appear more dependant on humans than other dogs, or whether it is the attitude of their owners that itself instills this more dependant behavior.
The findings build on those of a previous study that suggested some humans are drawn to animals with poor health that are more vulnerable, as this makes them feel more needed.
The study was undertaken by ethologist Dr Dorottya Ujfalussy and her colleagues at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.
They said: “Short-headed, fat-faced, small companion dog breeds are becoming increasingly popular among dog owners.”
This is despite, they noted, the range of serious health and welfare issues associated with these breeds — including breathing difficulties and eye diseases.
Dubbing this phenomenon the “Flat-Faced Paradox”, they added: “Despite the efforts to raise awareness of future owners, currently the French bulldog is the second most popular breed in the UK and the USA and first in Hungary.
“Other flat-faced breeds are also among the top popular breeds — e.g. the English bulldog, the Pug, the Boston terrier and the Shih Tzu.”
To investigate exactly what brachycephalic breeds remain so popular, Ujfalussy and her colleagues recruited 15 English bulldogs and 15 French bulldogs for an experiment.
Each dog was tasked with opening three boxes to get at pieces of sausage placed within — with each box having a different mechanism involving varying degrees of complexity.
The canines were given two minutes in which to open each box. During this time, both the experimenter and the dog’s owner stood behind the dog, out of direct sight.
They compared the performance of the flat-faced dogs with that of 13 Hungarian Mudis — a breed of medium-size, active, herding dog with a mid-length muzzle.
The team found that both the English and French bulldogs were significantly less successful at opening the boxes than their Mudi counterparts — doing so 93 percent less often.
When successful, the Mudis were faster than the bulldogs at getting the sausage meat.
Specifically, after one minute had elapsed, 90 percent of the Mudis had succeeded in opening the box in question — compared to just 50 percent of the bulldogs.
However, the team also found that the English and French bulldogs were, respectively, 4.16 and 4.49 times more likely to look back at their owner and the experimenter during the tests than the Hungarian Mudis.
The researchers concluded: “We have found stable evidence for enhanced orientation at humans in short-headed dogs when faced with a problem.”
Dog owners, they added, “may well interpret [this] as ‘helplessness’, help-seeking, and communication initiation.
“[These] probably, together with baby-like looks, are a trigger for out basic nurturing instinct.
“This may be the main reason why health and welfare-related issues — if known — are mostly disregarded by owners acquiring small brachycephalic companion breeds.”
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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