Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why Do We Love Puppies?

Why do we love puppies?

Why is it that those who don’t like dogs still like puppies?

Walking a large Lab/Pit Bull mixed dog is an interesting experience. I have two that I often walk through my neighborhood, and no matter how nice and friendly they are to me, most people see them as something to be feared. People are scared by pit bulls, some by large dogs, and others by all dogs. However, all that fear vanishes when they see you walking two 12-week-old puppies. The little happy-go-lucky guys suddenly become the center of attention. Apparently most people can’t help but love little puppies, even the type of dogs people tend to fear when they get bigger.

It seems our brains are what make us attracted to the little, innocent, creatures. After all, their large foreheads, and big, round eyes are reminiscent of human babies. Clearly, we’re predisposed to care for babies. We’re just a nurturing species. Our babies require a great deal of care for many years. When we see these cues, we can’t help but respond with a rush of a hormone called oxytocin. We generalize our feelings to other species--including dogs.

Unbelievably, that generalization in scientific parlance is called the ‘aw’ factor. We respond with lots of smiles, a softer and higher voice, and we tend to actually say ‘aw.’

Sometimes this same generalized attraction occurs when we see adult animals. With their big eyes, large, roundish heads, pronounced foreheads and fairly short snouts. Adult pandas elicit the same response that babies do. After all, they look like cuddly teddy bears.

It’s no coincidence that dogs look like they do. For thousands of years, we’ve played a role in their selection, and naturally, we select features that are most appealing to us. Many dogs were bred for a function such a herding sheep or to retrieve waterfowl, and their features reflect their jobs. However, other dogs were simply bred for our pleasure, and human baby-like features seem to be more evident in these breeds.

The King Charles spaniel as an example has many puppy features, even as adults. There is the soft expression and those big eyes. Many adult dogs of many breeds have a perpetual look of innocence, and that’s what’s most appealing.

For the most part, we have bred all dogs to retain puppy characteristics, like playfulness, throughout their lives. Dogs are one of an only few neotenous (retaining many child-like characteristics as adults) species on the planet. We find puppies so appealing that we want them to be puppies forever.

Still, there is more that is appealing about pups. Aside for those visual cues, they actually smell fresh, some of their whimpering sounds remind us of baby sounds, and that’s endearing to us. Also, puppies make us laugh – and of course laughter naturally feels good. We are all drawn to what makes us feel good.

However, if puppies do all these things for us and trigger an oxytocin burst that can’t be avoided, then why do some cultures treat puppies unkindly? I don’t think anyone knows. Biology is the same in everyone, so it must be that the culture around them can be a powerful force. Just as people who are afraid of adult dogs are unlikely to fear puppies, I would bet that young children not exposed to the cultural norms of those places not as friendly toward dogs, would find that puppies naturally charm them, but there’s no research on this area as far as I know.

Puppies certainly do charm us. It’s no coincidence that they are often used on TV and print ads. A cute puppy may help sell your product. In addition, of course puppies can do no wrong… well until they piddle on your carpet.

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