The real “face of America’s dog” is not much different from 1900-1950, even if pit bulls are more abundant
If someone wrote the sort of demonstrable nonsense about the relative popularity of automobile makes that a fellow named Brett Bachman published on Salon.com on July 4, 2021 about dog demographics, that essay would likely never reach an audience.
Bachman, however, got away with it, thereby contributing to the ever-growing dung heap of myth and misinformation about dog breed popularity.
The actual data, 1900-1950, for each decade since, and for the most recent eleven years:
Apparently no one at Salon.com actually bothered to check any numbers except, perhaps, American Kennel Club litter registrations, which represent only a tiny minority even of high-end pedigreed breeds.
Opened Bachman in “The changing face of ‘America’s dog’ — and what it says about us,” describing current dog breed acquisition trends:
“Perhaps no dog captured the [current] moment quite like the French bulldog, the squat, flat-faced, bat-eared social media star that last year catapulted to No. 2 on the American Kennel Club’s annual list of America’s most popular canines.”
This is somewhat like asserting that whatever sports car makes a splash at the annual Chicago Auto Show and then catches on with celebrities is among America’s most popular vehicles.
We check the numbers. Here’s how.
How does ANIMALS 24-7 know what is really going on in dog demographics?
Because we do check the numbers, each and every year, and have checked them, retrospectively, all the way back to 1900.
The numbers, moreover, are readily accessible, to anyone who cares to do the work to obtain them.
Almost every dog kept as either a pet or as a working dog somehow has to move from the dog’s birth home to an acquisition home.
Usually this is through advertising: classified newspaper ads during the twentieth century, online advertising beginning just before the dawn of the 21st century.
Search engine technology enables us to discover approximately how many of each dog breed are offered for sale each year at the peak of the summer dog-selling season––which is around the Fourth of July.
Shelter dogs & used cars
Averaging these numbers over multiple years provides not only a baseline estimate of the numbers of each breed who might be alive at any given time, but also a way to follow year-to-year trends.
The same approach, incidentally, can be used to accurately measure the popularity of almost anything else sold largely through advertising, from brands of beer to cars and films.
ANIMALS 24-7 also tabulates the numbers of dogs advertised for adoption by breed, but these numbers have the same relationship to the overall dog population that the used car marketplace has relative to new car sales. Shelter dogs are dogs who have already been counted once.
What the numbers of dogs offered for adoption indicate is the rate of failure of each breed to remain in the initial acquisition home.
French bulldogs rate 27th
Returning to “The changing face of ‘America’s dog’ — and what it says about us,” reality is that French bulldogs, currently just eight-tenths of 1% of the U.S. dog population, are only the 27th most popular dog breed in the U.S. right now, despite rating eighth most popular for the single year 2021.
French bulldogs appear to have peaked in popularity, after an abnormal one-year surge, in 2018.
Continued Bachman, “The big-screen exploits of Rin Tin Tin and, a few decades later, Lassie, popularized German shepherds and collies for an entire generation of Americans in the postwar period.”
But collies, originally bred and used for herding sheep, were already the second most popular dog breed in the U.S. throughout the entire first half of the 20th century, when the U.S. sheep industry was far larger than today.
Over those fifty years, collies, of all types combined, amounted to 8.2% of the total U.S. dog population.
Only hounds of all types combined, at 8.7% of the U.S. dog population, were more numerous from 1900 to 1950.
Both collies and hounds maintained a level of popularity during the first half of the 20th century unmatched by any breed since, let alone sustained over five decades.
Both collies and hounds slipped in popularity during the postwar years, despite Lassie, though hounds to this day remain the second most popular breed type, with collies in eleventh place––about twice as numerous as French bulldogs.
Ironically, Bachman’s claims about Lassie, a fictional dog who debuted in an 1859 short story, then resurfaced in a 1940 book and a 1943 film, might have been closer to true if Bachman had accurately dated Lassie’s story.
Rin Tin Tin vs. pit bulls
Bachman is correct that German shepherds got a big boost from the popularity of Rin Tin Tin, a real-life dog born in 1918, featured in films until his death in 1932, but the rise of German shepherds that began after World War I continued into the present century, when pit bulls surged in numbers, if not in consumer preference.
That pit bulls were, and are, bred to extreme excess is evident in shelter intake rates, shown in advertisements of pit bulls for adoption. The percentage of pit bulls among dogs offered by shelters and rescues has run at many times the percentage of pit bulls offered for sale for more than 30 years.
Did Snoopy kill beagle popularity?
Rattling on, Bachman asserted that “’Peanuts,’ Charles Schultz’ classic representation of Middle American childhood, introduced the country to a new dog: Snoopy the beagle.”
(Note the misspelling of Schulz’s name.)
Beagles, commonly used for hunting since colonial times, had already peaked in popularity, at 6% of the U.S. dog population from 1900 to 1950, before the “Peanuts” comic strip debuted on October 2, 1950.
Beagles thereafter declined in popularity, more-or-less in synch with the declining popularity of “beagling,” or hunting rabbits with beagles, until 15 years after “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz died on February 12, 2000.
Only in the one year 2015 did beagle breeding again approach the rate, proportionate to total dog population, of the pre-1950 era.
Even now, despite five consecutive years as a top ten breed, beagles have yet to regain even half of their pre-“Peanuts” popularity. Having risen back to 2.9% of the U.S. dog population, though, beagles may yet live down “Peanuts.”
Large retrievers “tower over the U.S. dog market”
Claimed Bachman of the 1970s and 1980s, a time his parents and grandparents should remember, “Both the golden and its close cousin, the Labrador retriever, towered over the U.S. dog market — a trend that continues to this day.”
This much is true, but large retrievers, the group including both goldens and Labradors, had already been among the ten most popular breeds continuously since 1900.
Pit bulls were never “mutts”
Perhaps most egregiously, Bachman alleged that “The pit bull’s story is, in actuality, a narrative of the American mutt.”
This overlooks that pit bulls, far from ever being “mutts,” are perhaps the dog type with the longest history of any of closely controlled breeding for performance, in fighting, baiting, and earlier, in hunting fugitive slaves.
There are today many superficially distinctive pit bull lines, developed as different dogfighters became known for pursuing different characteristics in their fighting dogs, occasionally mixing in other breeds in pursuit of specific traits.
The fighting dog line produced by John P. Colby, for example, became known as both the Staffordshire, a term Colby coined, and the American pit bull terrier.
Contrary to pit bull mythology, there was no dog line in Britain called a “Staffordshire” before the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 banned American pit bull terriers, occasioning British pit bull fanciers to abruptly change their dogs’ papers. This is easily verified just by searching the multi-century archives of British newspapers accessible at NewspaperArchive.com.
Pit bull “brand names”
The fighting dog line produced by John D. Johnson became known as the American Bulldog, morphing in other breeders’ kennels into the so-called Ambull and American Bully.
Fighting dog lines produced by Charles Werner, Earl Tudor, and many others comparably acquired “brand names,” but despite superficial differences, all of these fighting lines retained the traits which together are commonly identified as those of pit bulls: oversized head and jaws, squatty stance to prevent belly attacks, short hair, usually short ears and tail, and an inclination to explode from apparent repose to all-out attack without prior warning.
Pit bulls lacking those characteristics rarely lived long enough in the pit to pass along their genes––but were usually culled as “defective” before even reaching the pit, though Colby and Werner did sell some of their culls as pets.
Flunks history & geography
Continued Bachman, completely ignoring that dogfighting historically occurred south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River, with just a few rural Northeastern, Midwestern, and Northwestern enclaves, all associated with specific breeders, “The pit bull, like most mutts from history, became synonymous with the inner city.”
No, the pit bull did not. On the contrary, the pit bull, then usually just called a bulldog, became most closely associated with Ku Klux Klan use in lynchings, and with Klan-controlled protection rackets. Pit bulls did not cross over from prison gangs to inner city gang use in significant number until the 1980s.
Even today, though, the pit bull is the “white dog” at times released by racists to attack dark-skinned people at random, a common KKK tactic during the integration era, still occasionally occurring.
Bachman mentioned that, “Recently, an entire body of scholarship has formed to probe the parallel racism and classism levied against both pit bulls and black Americans, and especially the black Americans who own pit bulls.”
Indeed, an entire body of propaganda masquerading as scholarship has emerged to try to rewrite the miserable history of pit bull use against black Americans, beginning when slave traders brought “Cuban bloodhounds” resembling today’s mastiff/pit bull crosses to the future U.S., along with some of the first slaves sold in North America.
Mixed with fighting dogs, these became the dogs of choice for hunting escaped slaves and terrorizing Native Americans for the next two centuries.
Failed to stratify “bites” by severity
But Bachman is scarcely the only pundit writing glib gibberish about dog demographics.
Christian M. Wade, who covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group, weighed in on July 6, 2021, writing that, “At least 430 insurance claims were filed by people whose dogs were involved in biting incidents last year, the state Division of Insurance reported.
“Ironically,” Wade asserted, “family-friendly Labrador retrievers were involved in a majority of bite cases that named a specific breed, or 52 reported claims.
“They were followed by German shepherds, which were involved in 50 biting claims. Pit bulls were also among the top dogs listed in bites last year, with 37 reported claims.
“Rottweilers, often considered an aggressive breed by insurers, were only listed in four of the reported biting claims. Doberman pincers were only involved in three.”
Hounds & setters
This is just about exactly the distribution of “biting incidents” that a person familiar with the relative numbers of the various breeds would expect.
But a whole different picture emerges when “biting incidents” are stratified by level of severity.
Labs and Lab mixes have inflicted 11 fatalities since 1982, as have Dobermans, now a relatively rare breed.
German shepherds and their mixes have inflicted 39 fatalities; Rottweilers and their mixes have inflicted 114 fatalities; and pit bulls, not quite as numerous as Labs, have killed 530 people.
Hounds, incidentally, all types combined, have killed just four people. Setters, a very popular large breed currently ranking 14th in popularity, have yet to kill anyone.
(See Dog attack deaths & maimings, U.S. & Canada, 1982-2020 log and add 17 pit bull fatalities as of mid-2021.)
Market share of only 2.2% cracks the top 10
Having done with canine demographic illiteracy, what are the actual current trends in dog breeding, acquisition, and abandonment to shelters, and what do they really mean?
The 2021 ANIMALS 24-7 survey numbers mainly confirm the trends of recent past years, including that as the number of dog breeds recognized by various kennel clubs grows, the U.S. dog population is ever more fragmented among various breeds and breed types.
As of 1950, any dog breed type rating among the top 10 in popularity typically commanded market share of more than 3.5%. Pit bulls, 21st in popularity by all of their various names combined, came in at 1%.
In the first 21 years of the 21st century, market share of only 2.2% is enough to crack the top 10, but 26 breeds and breed types––French bulldogs not quite among them––reach 1%.
Most of the movement in recent years involves small dogs moving up and down the scale relative to each other.
Only one large breed, the Great Dane, moved up significantly in 2021, emerging as one of the 21 most popular breeds for the very first time, even joining the top 10.
Single-year surges are not unusual, but Great Danes have increased in popularity for five consecutive years, so this may not be a fluke.
Pit bulls, 4.8% of the dogs offered for sale at the Fourth of July in 2021, were 42% of the dogs available for adoption from shelters and rescues, according to spot-checks of photographs, but only one pit bull in six advertised by a shelter or rescue was actually identified as such.
Most are termed either “mixed breeds” or are called something else with which they share some visible characteristic. A black-and-white pit bull, for instance, is often identified in shelter or rescue advertising as a “border collie,” even when the pit bull no more resembles an actual border collie than it does a skunk or a panda bear.
As in recent past years, approximately one pit bull in three appears to be in custody of a shelter or rescue at some point during the year, most often due to owner surrender for behavioral reasons.
Chihuahuas & greyhounds
The Chihuahua glut in animal shelters evident for a few years appears to have subsided.
Chihuahuas are currently only about a seventh as plentiful in shelters as pit bulls, but are still about twice as plentiful as greyhounds, whose present abundance in shelters and rescues appears to be mostly the consequence of greyhound racing having been abolished in Florida by ballot initiative, effective on January 1, 2021.
No other breeds appear to be represented in the U.S. animal shelter population in numbers disproportionate to their overall popularity.