A fashionably small dog who resides with the owner
One of those fashionably small dogs; the fashionably named Mrs Miniver is one of the author’s hounds (see fingers for scale)

Fairfax reported yesterday that pure dog breeds are getting smaller in Australia. Research by Paul McGreevy from Macquarie University finds that compared to taller and larger breeds, shorter and smaller breeds have become relatively more popular over time.

The research draws on registration statistics kept by the Australian National Kennel Council from 1986 to 2013 so it only covers pedigree dogs.

It’s of interest to me because Professor McGreevy is quoted as saying the growing “preference for smaller dogs over larger ones correlates with a trend towards higher density living”.

Various theories have been advanced to explain the “dog downsizing” trend (see also Why are small dogs becoming more fashionable?):

  • Less outdoor space – more apartments, town houses and bigger houses on smaller lots.
  • Aging population – less income to feed and care for a larger dog and less strength to wrangle one.
  • Liability – Increased concern about the risk of a larger dog biting people.
  • Exercise – less leisure time to walk a larger dog and more waste to pick up.
  • Delayed first child – couples and singles want a cuddly “child substitute”.

The most interesting and arguably the most convincing explanation, though, is that variations in breed preferences (and consequently size) are primarily due to fashion.

Harold Herzog identified “rapid but transient large-scale increases in the popularity of specific dog breeds” in the US over the period from 1946 to 2003 (Forty-two Thousand and One Dalmatians: Fads, Social Contagion, and Dog Breed Popularity):

Nine breeds of dogs showed particularly pronounced booms and busts in popularity. On average, the increase (boom) phase in these breeds lasted 14 years, during which time annual new registrations increased 3,200%. Equally steep decreases in registrations for the breeds immediately followed these jumps in popularity.

Stefano Ghirlanda et al examined the relationship between popularity and breeds in the US between 1926 and 2005 (Fashion vs. Function in Cultural Evolution: The Case of Dog Breed Popularity).

We consider breed health, longevity, and behavioral qualities such as aggressiveness, trainability, and fearfulness. We show that a breed’s overall popularity, fluctuations in popularity, and rates of increase and decrease around popularity peaks show typically no correlation with these breed characteristics. One exception is the finding that more popular breeds tend to suffer from more inherited disorders. Our results support the hypothesis that dog breed popularity has been primarily determined by fashion rather than function.

In another study, Ghirlanda and colleagues examined the impact of popular culture on dog breed choice (Dog Movie Stars and Dog Breed Popularity: A Case Study in Media Influence on Choice):

(We show) that the release of movies featuring dogs is often associated with an increase in the popularity of featured breeds, for up to 10 years after movie release. We also find that a movie’s impact on breed popularity correlates with the estimated number of viewers during the movie’s opening weekend—a proxy of the movie’s reach among the general public.

So while it’s tempting to associate something as homely as breed choice with deeper forces like density, it appears more likely it’s the result of something a lot shallower.

But a note of caution; all these studies rely on kennel club statistics. It’s possible the preferences  of breeders and exhibitors are different from those of the much larger number of owners of rescue dogs, loveable mongrels, and pedigrees that aren’t registered with the Kennel Council.

I asked my local authority, City of Banyule, for information on whether or not there’s been any noticeable change in the characteristics of dogs registered with Council.

There wasn’t time to get together any statistics, but the Council’s two rangers say they haven’t noticed any significant change in the mix of breeds/size of registered dogs in the municipality over the 15 years they’ve both been in the job.

That’s anecdotal so it needs to be interpreted accordingly. Also, Banyule’s primarily a suburban municipality so perhaps downsizing – if it’s happening at all – is mainly an inner city phenomenon. But even if that’s the case, the inner city only accommodates 8% of the metropolitan area’s population.

While it’s plausible that the preferences of the wider population of dog owners reflects much the same tastes as kennel club members – particularly where fashion is concerned – this is one of those issues where better data is needed.

Bye the bye, of the 13,906 registered dogs in the City of Banyule, the very helpful Fiona tells me the three most popular breeds are Jack Russell (795), Labrador (781) and Maltese Terrier/Shih Tzu (557).

And if you want to make your dog special, avoid these names: Max (264), Bella (202) and Charlie (202). It would be interesting to see how names change with geography – is Rusty popular in Wollongong? Lucky in Springvale? Duke in Toorak? Roxy in Kings Cross?