What influences the breed of dog that a person chooses as their pet? Popular myth says we choose dogs that reflect our personality. And there may be some truth to this, according to a study by the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology.
The research team found that certain personality traits correlated with a preference for more aggressive dogs.
According to their study, people who were lower in agreeableness (less concerned with the needs of others and quicker to become hostile) preferred breeds like bull terriers and boxers.
So science confirms what intuition tells us, that snarly people like snarly dogs. However, no research has been done into the breed preferences of agreeable people.
And it seems that reflecting one’s personality in one’s dog may not be the greatest influence on breed choice.
Dr Harold Herzog from the Department of Psychology at Western Carolina University has produced a study that suggests social trends are the most influential factor when it comes’ to choosing a dog.
Dog breeds are fads and conform to the patterns of other popular cultural phenomenon in the waxing and waning of their popularity, according to Dr Herzog.
Dr Herzog obtained puppy registration records from the American Kennel Club for every year from 1946 to 2003. The 48 million registrations revealed that a number of breeds experienced sharp increases and decreases in their popularity in a boom and bust-type pattern.
Old English Sheepdog numbers exploded a startling 10,000% in a 14-year boom starting in 1960. Dalmatian registrations rose a comparatively modest 79% in a 10-year boom from 1983.
Herzog attributes these breed fads to the influence of two Disney movies, The Shaggy Dog in 1959, which starred an Old English Sheepdog, and 101 Dalmatians in 1985.
However, in Herzog’s opinion, media influence is the exception rather than the rule.
“With dogs, there are only a few instances in which there is a clear, causal relationship between a movie and a breed epidemic,” his study states.
This assumption stands true when you consider the other seven breeds that experienced popularity fads in the second half of the 20th century.
Perhaps there are films based on the exploits of the Afghan Hound, the Chow Chow, the Doberman Pincher, the Great Dane, the Irish Setter, the Saint Bernard or the Rottweiler. But they remain obscure if they exist at all.
Yet these dogs all enjoyed fad-induced popularity spikes. The mean increase for all the breeds in Herzog’s study during their respective boom periods was 3,428%.
According to Herzog, the rise and fall of the popularity of dog breeds has the same causes as other social fads – class imitation and cultural drift.
“Class imitation… occurs when the middle class adopts a cultural variant associated with the rich,” Herzog says.
The interest in pedigree dogs in the UK and America began amongst the wealthy and was imitated by the middle class.
Herzog likens dog breeds to memes. We all probably know memes as the topical jokes shared on the Internet.
But the term meme was initially coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. (Yes that Richard Dawkins, the disagreeable atheist. Wonder if he owns a bull terrier?)
Dawkins used meme to describe what he saw as the cultural equivalent of biological genes. Genes reproduce by replication. Memes are pieces of cultural information transmitted by imitation. Examples are tattoos, nursery rhymes and religious beliefs.
Herzog believes people’s choice of dog breed is often a matter of simple imitation.
“Memes for the different breeds are spread from mind to mind by imitation, just as a computer virus is spread from machine to machine via the Internet.”
That seems as good a reason as any for choosing to keep an Alaskan Malamute in a suburban backyard.
As with so many purchase decisions, when choosing a dog, people refer to the actions of others to determine their own.
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