Where Did Lassie Go?

Deciphering trends in breed popularity.

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Who knew Reese Witherspoon had the ability to shuffle the breed cards, so to speak, shifting one breed in particular closer to the top of the deck? But she did. When her Legally Blonde character Elle Woods took her Chihuahua, Bruiser, from California to Harvard Law School, Chihuahuas began to enjoy greater popularity among those bringing a purebred dog into their lives, much as Brussels Griffons got a boost from Verdell’s finally stealing Jack Nicholson’s heart in As Good As It Gets.

Of course, the spate of Taco Bell commercials featuring a Chihuahua didn’t hurt that breed’s renown, either. Truth be told, dogs in the media fueling the popularity of dogs in people’s homes is an old story. Shortly after Rin Tin Tin was featured in the Warner Brothers film Man From Hell’s River in 1922, German shepherds rose in popularity to the number one spot for four years. Don’t even get us started on Lassie.

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But dogs made popular in the movies and on television aren’t the only reason breed trends come and go. Part of it, says the communications director for the American Kennel Club, Lisa Peterson, is economics. During the height of the recession, she comments, smaller breeds like Chihuahuas became more of a hit because they’re less expensive to take care of than larger ones. Thus, while Sex and the City actress Kristin Davis’s character, Charlotte York, helped boost the number of people adopting Cavalier King Charles spaniels once she took in a dog of that breed by the name of Elizabeth Taylor, the dog’s small size also made the breed more suitable for people’s budgets in harder times. It costs less to own a smaller breed, Ms. Peterson says, because of lower feeding costs in addition to lower fees for pet care services like grooming and boarding, whose prices are often based on a pet’s weight. For the same reason, Ms. Peterson postulates, ownership of papillons, Chinese crested, and Norwich terriers skyrocketed between 2005 and 2010. People still had to have dogs — just not big ones that cost a lot to keep.

Today, she says, with the recession, well, receding for many, larger breeds are making a comeback. Indeed, the three most popular breeds in 2013 were Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and golden retrievers.

Along with media popularity and cost, the decision about what kind of dog to get also includes consideration about ease of maintenance. With more and more families having two adult earners working long hours with little down time, very long-haired breeds have taken a hit. A rough collie, for instance — the breed that looks like Lassie — needs consistent brushing. “You’ve got all this hair,” says Jerold Bell, DVM, an associate professor of genetics at Tufts Cummings School. People no longer have the time to brush a big dog with long hair on a daily basis so that it doesn’t become matted and gnarled (which not only makes it unsightly but also doesn’t serve the dog so well as a protective coat).

Dogs with high grooming requirements, like collies and Irish setters, were actually most popular in the 1940s. This was well before the TV moms of the 1960s would have even contemplated popping a TV dinner in the oven to accommodate their ever busier schedules.

Exercise needs take time, too. AKC spokesperson Peterson points out that bulldogs and French bulldogs have become more popular not only because of their short hair but also their minimal exercise requirements — just two 30-mintue walks daily. That’s a lot different, she says, “from a border collie, who needs to tend to a flock of sheep all day to be happy.” How (in)active people feel a dog should be is a big change from the 1880s, when physical activity defined people’s lifestyles. Back then, the English setter was among the most popular breeds. The dog would find birds and crouch down on their front legs to allow hunters to throw a net over them. An English setter can most certainly be an affectionate family dog that loves to be with people, but it’s athletic and energetic and won’t be happy unless it’s kept busy physically. For perspective, Theodore Roosevelt had one.

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There’s also the issue of allergies. No type of dog is categorically hypoallergenic. A person can become allergic to any breed. But several breeds have become more popular because they shed less dander than other breeds, and that might have the potential to cut down on allergic reactions. For that reason, Portuguese water dogs, Bedlington terriers, and soft-coated Wheaten terriers have also risenin popularity.

Indiscriminate breeding can make a breed less popular

Of course, sometimes breeds come and go as a result of overbreeding. A particular breed might become very much in vogue, and then puppy mills will create more and more dogs of that breed without regard to any problems of health or temperament the sires and dams might have. For instance, with collies, there can be abnormal development of the eye that leads to a detached retina, Dr. Bell says. The condition has become so prevalent as to affect “up to 67 percent of the breed,” he says, although there is a test for it now to screen potential canine parents.

Collies have also become less popular than, say, goldens and Labs because they’re not as interactive with their human families, which is what people want more and more. “A collie will play,” Dr. Bell says, “but she’s going to give up sooner. She’ll say, ‘Yeah, this is fun, but I’m not chasing this anymore.'” A retriever, by contrast, will fetch and keep coming back forever.

With cocker spaniels, the most popular of dogs both in the 1940s and the 1980s, the issue became a certain snippiness “because there was nobody paying attention to temperament when breeding,” Dr. Bell says. What was gentle and wonderful about them too often became a ready tendency to get annoyed and nip.

Labs so far seem immune to a degradation in temperament, Dr. Bell comments. “They’ve managed to maintain their excellent personalities, so we really don’t see the nippiness. Labs are just smushes. That is one of their strongest points. The good traits have kept being passed down, and the wrong traits never made the rounds.” No wonder the American Kennel Club states that Labrador retrievers took the number 1 spot for breed popularity not just in 2013 but for 22 consecutive years before that. However, Dr. Bell states, “Labs have some skeletal, neuromuscular, eye, and heart disorders that breeders must test for in their breeding dogs so that these problems do not continue to increase in frequency.

“Siberian Huskies have really jumped up in numbers,” Dr. Bell adds. “People really like them. I’m not sure what’s driving their popularity.”

Some trends, it would seem, simply have no ready explanation.

14 COMMENTS

  1. As a collie owner of over 30 years (rescues 2 of 3 dogs) I consider collies to be extremely gentle, easy care, and playful – and delightfully social.

    We have our dog groomed 1x per month, with only occasional brushing – and he is always complimented as being well-groomed. No daily brushing is needed!

    • I agree! I have two long coat collies, like lassie (rough collies). I rarely brush them, just take them to the groomer every other month. They’re always gorgeous! And, big bonus, they don’t smell bad or “doggy” like a lab and other breeds. Also, who says they’re not interactive? They don’t constantly hound me for attention, like a lab, but are super affectionate, usually by my side, and love everyone, even kids. I think they’re the perfect dog!

      • Definitely the perfect dog. Always at attention, even when seemingly asleep. Can’t believe how much of our conversation she follows
        We sit and talk because we realize how much she follows our conversation. Gentle. Really, really good manners. Loved when people admire her
        She is the third person in our family.

  2. As an extreme fan of the Lassie TV shows when I was a kid, I have always wanted a Lassie of my own, and now, I finally have her. I disagree with the statement in the article about collies not being as interactive with their human families. My Lassie is VERY sociable and interactive with us. She is a delight, and I don’t care how much hair she sheds. She’s perfect for me.

  3. I had a rough tri collie as a kid, & have wanted one again for years. I finally got my wish last summer when my husband & I got an AKC registered tri puppy. He’s delightful! He’s still a puppy (9 months old), so he still has his puppy moments, but he’s been so easy to train & wants to be with us constantly.

  4. We have a trim-color rough collie and she is about as social and interactive with our family as any dog could be, She is smart and loving, enjoys our cats and is always up for a quick game of fetch. Will she retrieve a ball for hours like a golden or a lab? No, but I consider that a good thing.

    On the grooming side, she is pretty easy to maintain. We have her groomed every other month, but her coat is always shiny and clean and she never smells of wet dog (even though she likes playing in the rain). Contrast that to our previous dog (a spaniel), who looked great after a grooming, but quickly developed mats and almost always smelled like a dog.

  5. I grew up with rough Collies. For me, there is no other breed to own. Collies are extremely intelligent, loyal, giving, an absolute joy to own. The only reason I don’t own a Collie at present is because I live in Southern California. Collies thrive in cold weather; it would be cruel to force one to live in a warm climate. I remember how it was next-to-impossible to bring my Collies inside during Chicago’s brutal winters. My guys just wanted to roll and roll and roll around in the snow and ice on frigid January afternoons.

  6. The person who wrote this article must be a cat fan as the know nothing at all about Rough Collies. I had a Tri Rough collie that saved my life. My mum and dad have had 2 sables. They had 1 before I was born and she looked after me as a baby and I used to hold on to her and she would stand up and I walked at 8 months. My parents said she was my protector and would only let people near if she liked me. In 2010 I had cancer and I was so depressed I got my Tri who saved my life and made me love again and because of her, I am married. My mum and dad got their second sable in 2011. My Tri would play fetch for hours, even when she got tired she would bark at the ball to stop rolling and then walk to get it and bring it back for me to throw again. My parents sable was so living, she loved to be fussed by family and strangers. So what this so called Dr. said in his article is utter rubbish and should really speak to Rough Collie owners before spouting his rubbish.

    • I have a similar story
      My parents got a rough collie when I was born. She was my protector and when I was learning to walk, she would gently grab my arm and bring me back to my folks if I wandered off. Dad said there was never a mark in my skin where she grabbed me. If dad got angry at me she would stand between us and growl at him.

      Someone poisoned her when she was five.
      My dad was emotionally closed off but I’m told he cried uncontrollably.

      We had several as I was growing up

      I never had any as an adult as my wife had severe allergies which is a shame.

      My daughter loves our neighbours border collie but I’m sure a rough collie would be her best friend

  7. Growing up I had two of rough collies but, when it came to choosing a dog for our 7 year old son we went with a smooth. It was a great decision; all the great things about a collie without the tangles. She still sheds like crazy but it is easier to manage than the long hair of the roughs. As for not being an engaged dog, ours will chase the ball/frisbee until we stop her. (In the winter when it is cold she can go seemingly forever.) She then comes back and has a nice rest. Would have a hard time picking a different breed.

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