Texas Tech assistant professor Nathan Hall was part of a study that showed a dog pup reaches is cutest point right about the time the mother ceases to care for it, making it prime for adoption.
A quick perusal through social media shows that some of the most popular posts – those that get the most likes, shares and retweets – involve animals. The smaller and younger the animal, the better.
There is just something about puppies, kittens, cubs, joeys, calves, piglets and chicks that tugs at the heartstrings or puts a smile on people's faces. Eventually, though, those youngsters grow up to be full-grown animals, and their cuteness can wane.
At just what age are animals their cutest? When it comes to dogs, that is an area one Texas Tech University researcher can answer.
Nathan Hall, an assistant professor of companion animals in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, has done extensive work in a variety of areas with dogs, from training and behavior to the characteristics that influence behavior. He also was part of a study that examined at what age a puppy is considered to be the cutest.
Unlike wolves, which raise their pups for up to two years, domesticated dogs usually abandon their pups after about eight weeks, and if they are not adopted, the mortality rate for those pups is relatively high. While wolf puppies are allowed to develop naturally and learn survival skills, domesticated dogs are, as Hall said, more “like a potato chip; they can't do too much at that time.” Domesticated pups need human intervention to survive.
This study found that, for whatever reason, the age when pups reach peak cuteness level is also the age when they are abandoned and become adoptable.
“It almost seems like it's an evolutionary strategy to basically make itself as ready as possible to be adopted at that age,” Hall said. “Does the peak of cuteness happen to coincide right at that time where they might be abandoned and have that ‘help me' look?”
The study in which Hall participated, along with Arizona State University researcher Clive Wynne and University of Florida undergraduate student at the time, Nadine Chersini, examined exactly when certain puppies reach their cutest by taking responses from individuals who were shown pictures of dogs at various stages of development, from newborn to adulthood. People rated different levels of cuteness for different breeds, but all dogs reached prime cuteness within about the same two-week period.
“If it was just the younger they look, the cuter they are, then they would be cutest right after they were born,” Hall said. “But in fact, they are kind of weird-looking after they are born. They are very squishy, but then they start to get cute, then they get cuter, then the cuteness decreases as they become adults.”
For the survey, 51 people were shown 39 black-and-white headshots of dogs of three different breeds – a Cane Corso, a Jack Russell Terrier and a White Shepherd in various stages of development, from newborn to seven months old. Participants were then asked to rate the cuteness of each dog in the picture.
The peak cuteness level varied for each breed, but all pups were rated the cutest somewhere between 6-8 weeks. The attractiveness of the Cane Corso, the largest of the three breeds, peaked at 6.3 weeks of age; the Jack Russell terrier peaked at 7.7 weeks and the White Shepherd peaked at 8.3 weeks.
There also were differences in attractiveness depending on the breed, with the Cane Corso rated lower than the other two breeds. But the researchers' hypothesis seemed to be validated in that peak cuteness happens around the time of weaning.
How that can be used beneficially for the dogs to enhance their survival isn't quite clear. Previous studies examined how manipulating certain aspects of the dog, enhancing its infant-like qualities, increases its adoptability.
How cuteness translates into adoptability, an implied aspect of this study, hasn't been definitely determined. There are several other aspects to that question that have to be explored, Hall said, such as how does cuteness influence how much a person is willing to put in the time and commitment it takes to raise a pup.
Another potential study that could break off from this one is how much of an influence breed has on cuteness. For this study, the Cane Corso was determined the least cute of the three breeds, but it also grows up to be a large dog with large jowls similar to a Mastiff or Saint Bernard. The White Shepherd and Jack Russell terrier were judged to be cuter.
Selection due to breed can hinge on other factors than cuteness, such as function or size. It also might not even be specific to one breed – some prefer mixed breeds or just plain ol' mutts. People also could be looking to rescue a certain age of dog, whether it is a pup or a senior.
“I believe there are going to be a whole lot of specific, individual variables, too, because people somehow identify with certain breeds or dog morphologies and that is the breed or look they like,” Hall said.
One thing is for certain; the possibility exists for many other studies to branch off of this one.