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Experts Explain The Science Behind Judging The 'Attractiveness' Of Dogs

Dog lovers tend to respond positively to most dogs they encounter. Most dogs will bring a smile to the face of those of us who value animals for their unconditional affection and loyalty.

According to Professor Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, there is a reason people who like dogs become excited when they see a dog, especially a puppy, they consider cute.

"The excitement mode is because we, like most birds and mammals, have evolved to be attracted to what Konrad Lorenz called the kindchenschema —in other words, the appearance of a younger animal," he said. "That actually has been built in to encourage nurturing."

Beck says there are key characteristics that affect our response to young dogs: a big round head and huge eyes. Some canines maintain these ‘cute’ qualities into adulthood. This is known as neoteny, which according to Science Daily means “the physiological (or somatic) development of an animal or organism is slowed or delayed.” This process results in maintaining youthful physical characteristics as an adult.

"One of the great studies is the neoteny of Mickey Mouse," Beck said, referring to a 1979 essay by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould that shows how Disney neotenized the cartoon icon in its 50 years as a popular character.

"He has assumed an ever more childlike appearance as the ratty character of Steamboat Willie became the cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom," Gould wrote, observing that Mickey's head and eyes grew larger over time. Disney intended to preserve fan loyalty among adults by appealing to their affection for child-like creatures.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, for example, judges more than 2,800 dogs who compete for the Best in Show title. Yet the standards for judging a dog go beyond mere cuteness.

"That is the misnomer," said Gail Miller Bisher, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club. "A lot of people think it’s a beauty contest when it’s not at all, really." The Club evaluates dogs based on build and appearance for their individual breed. They are not competing with each other.

"So, for example, herding dogs will have a certain length of rib ... a certain length of neck, certain angles to their shoulder blades, so that they can work for long hours trotting and climbing if need be in the highlands of Scotland to retrieve sheep," Bisher said. "There’s a reason that they're built the way they are."

This year’s Best in Show winner, a small bichon frise named Flynn, caused some controversy. "Fans who had been loudly shouting for their favorites fell into stunned silence when judge Betty-Anne Stenmark announced her decision," reporter Ben Walker wrote after the selection. However, the judges awarded Flynn the top prize over fan favorite Biggie, a small big-headed, big-eyed pug, because “the bichon more closely resembled its standard than the pug did."

Dogs, however, are also valued for their sometimes awkward looks. At the World's Ugliest Dog Contest, held each summer at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, California, dogs are judged for uniqueness. According to its website, "the Contest has been a testament that all dogs do not have to meet AKC [American Kennel Club] pedigree standards to be man's (or woman's) best friend." Past winners include a Chinese-crested Chihuahua named Sweepee Rambo, a mutt named Quasi Modo, and this year’s massive bulldog named Zsa Zsa.

Beck believes people respond to these less than traditionally beautiful dogs because of "our concern for the underdog."

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"There's this sympathy effect in some people," he said. "We assume that fewer people would care about them or want them. "I think we’re just fascinated with something that’s really different. It's not like the average dog, and we tend to be somewhat sympathetic."

In the end, in the animal, as in the human world, it’s what inside that counts. Bisher says people should attend the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show to understand different breeds and individual personalities. "We all have different ideas of what beauty is, but we have to get beyond that and really learn more about the breeds to appreciate them," she said.

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