Film has influenced breed choice over the years

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Art, literature and entertainment has greatly influenced our thinking leading to the anthropomorphism of dogs; I call this ‘The Lassie Effect’™. Lassie was a Collie with the heart of a lion and the navigational skills of a pigeon. Lassie made the public believe he could think, plan, sympathise, know right from wrong, remember complicated facts and seek revenge. But when Lassie appeared to be studying a situation, he was actually watching his trainer wave a rag.

But Lassie hasn’t only influenced how we believe dogs think – new findings from Bristol University, City University of New York and Western Carolina University show it has also had an impact on the popularity of certain breeds too.

When Lassie was released in 1943, the number of Collie registrations increased 40-fold over the following two years. This trend was repeated just 16 years later with the Disney movie The Shaggy Dog, a film about a boy who periodically turned into an Old English sheepdog. The results were even more dramatic than Lassie, seeing a 100-fold ­increase in Old English sheepdog registrations after the film came out.

The researchers found that Hollywood’s influence on the popularity of dog breeds was at its strongest in the early 20th century and has since declined. The team used information from the American Kennel Club which maintains the world’s largest registry with more than 65 million dogs on its database.

The study, published in the academic journal PLOS ONE, investigated 87 films featuring dogs and found the release of these movies often corresponded with an increase in popularity of featured breeds over periods of one, two, five and ten years. The ten films with the strongest ten-year effect were associated with changes in registration trends to the extent that over 800,000 more dogs were registered in the decade after the movies’ release than would have been expected from pre-release trends. The earlier films were associated with the larger trend changes than later ones. Researchers suggested that this could be due to the rising competition over decades from other forms of media outside of the cinema, from television to more recently with the internet.

Interestingly, the study also revealed “erratic fluctuations” – where fashion and fads come into play – phenomena typically seen with baby names, but in this case where the greater the number of breed registrations were being made, the quicker the breed declined in popularity. This is a case of “everyone now has a (insert breed here) so I want to be different!”

The researchers also found that the popularity of breeds was unrelated to breed temperament and health. Hal Herzog from Western Carolina ­University said: “On the whole, breeds with more desirable ­behaviours, greater longevity and fewer inherited genetic disorders did not become more popular than other breeds…In short; cultural shifts in types of pets largely reflect ephemeral changes in fashion rather than selection for functional traits.”

So what next?

In 2012 Dreamworks Animation bought the rights to the Lassie franchise. It is believed they are hoping to use the rights to turn Lassie into a merchandising success. And, it was just weeks ago that a new ‘Lassie’ was out doing the rounds and making several public appearances in the United States, including interviews with presenter Ryan Seacrest. So, will we see a resurgence in Collie registrations following a plethora of merchandise and publicity stunts thanks to the Dreamworks team? Well, that remains to be seen.

Click here to read the full academic paper on this study. See below to view the researchers data.

 

Figure 1: Estimation of a movie's effect on breed popularity. American Kennel Club data show that registrations of Labrador retrievers Figure 1: Estimation of a movie’s effect on breed popularity – Labrador retrievers… Figure 2: Average trend changes in breed registration around the year of movie release, for trend changes measured over four different time spans. Figure 2: Average trend changes in breed registration around the year of movie release, for trend changes measured over four different time spans. Figure 3: Changes in breed registration trends associated with movie release, calculated according to equation (1) Figure 3: Changes in breed registration trends associated with movie release, calculated according to equation (1).

 

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