Earlier this year, the French bulldog replaced the Labrador retriever as the most popular pet dog in the United States. Flat-faced or brachycephalic dogs continue to be a favorite despite their health problems. These include breathing issues like Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS), an increased risk of heat stroke, and multiple eye issues stemming from aesthetic-based genetic engineering and extreme breeding. In response to these health issues, the Netherlands has banned their breeding on ethical grounds, and the British Veterinary Association has urged people to not buy flat-faced breeds.

[Related: How breeding dogs for certain traits may have altered their brains.]

Cognitive ethologist and behavior biologist Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary Dorottya Júlia Ujfalussy and her team are working on understanding a “paradox phenomenon,” where the number of these flat faced pets continues to increase, despite their known health and longevity issues.

“One reason for choosing a flat-faced pet may be the child-like appearance, however, owner reports suggest that behavior is also involved. We are trying to pinpoint the behavior traits that set these breeds apart from breeds with more healthy head shapes,” Ujfalussy tells PopSci.

In a small study published September 21 in the journal Scientific Reports, Ujfalussy and her team found that these breeds are more likely to look at humans longer and display traits that appear “helpless” and more infant-like to humans. The team assessed the behavior of 15 English bulldogs and 15 French bulldogs compared to the behavior of 13 Hungarian mudis. Mudis are herding dogs with a mid-length muzzle and do not have the bulldogs’ squished face. 

The dogs had to try and open three boxes to retrieve a piece of food. The boxes had different opening techniques that varied in difficulty and they were presented to all of the dogs in a random order. The dogs also saw one of the researchers put a piece of sausage into a box and were then given two minutes to open the box. The team and dog’s owner stood behind the dog and out of direct sight during the experiment. 

A French bulldog successfully opening a box and retrieving the food. CREDIT: Erzsébet Mőbiusz/Marianna Molnár.
A French bulldog successfully opening a box and retrieving the food. CREDIT: Erzsébet Mőbiusz/Marianna Molnár.

English and French bulldogs successfully opened the box 93 percent less often than the mudis did. The successful mudis were also faster than the bulldogs who opened the boxes. By the time one minute had gone by, roughly 90 percent of mudis had opened the box, compared to about 50 percent of the bulldogs. However, the bulldogs were 4.16 and 4.49 times as likely to look back at their people than mudis.

“The most surprising was the extent of the helplessness, lack of success and visual orientation of dogs to the owners,” Ujfalussy says. “It seemed like they were depending on their humans to solve problems for them much more than your typical family dogs.”

The team believes that these findings show that short-faced dogs seek out humans when faced with problems more frequently, which may promote a stronger social relationship between the owners and their dogs due to this perception of helplessness. 

[Related: Dogs and wolves remember where you hide their food.]

The study could not establish whether flat-faced dogs are actually genetically predisposed to look more dependent on humans than other dog breeds or whether  owners’ attitudes towards flat-faced dogs encourages dependent behavior. The team is working to continue to study these behavior characteristics.

“We would like to raise awareness of this ‘flat-faced’ paradox in the hope that people make more conscious choices of pets, not relying on their instincts and falling for the ‘cute looks’ and dependent (helpless) behavior that reminds them of human children,” says Ujfalussy.