This past weekend, I saw Heather Graham wearing cut-off shorts with lacy black tights. Someone seeing this fashion statement might be quick to run out and buy a similar outfit. You could say there is a “Movie Star Effect” for clothes and fashion, and humans of all ages follow trends and fads. As a high-schooler, I modeled my image after Claire Danes, the one and only Angela Chase from My So-Called Life. More flannel shirts please.
But might there be a Movie Star Effect when it comes to dogs? For example, does Jon Stewart’s support of rescue dogs rub off on the general public? Are people more likely to run out for a pocket-sized pooch after seeing Paris Hilton with one tucked under her arm or in her purse?
What about when the movie star is not a human but rather the dog itself? Do the dogs of the big screen make their way onto our couches? Researchers Stefano Ghirlanda, @drghirlanda, Alberto Acerbi, @acerbialberto, and Hal Herzog, @herzoghal recently published a study in PLOS One investigating whether the “Dog Movie Star Effect” is real. The question was: when a movie comes out that prominently features a dog, is there an associated increase in that breed’s popularity?
To answer their question, the researchers turned to the American Kennel Club (AKC) registry that contains 65 million puppies registered from 1926 to 2005. They also identified 87 movies from that span that featured 63 breeds in the AKC database. (Dear Researchers: if you have any future studies that involve watching movies, I am available. And I know how to make popcorn. I’ll handle all the cheesy action movies). Anyway, to study the Dog Movie Star Effect, they focused on movies where dogs were main characters, and then they excluded dogs who were negative characters, like Cujo. For movies featuring a dog protagonist of a particular breed, the researchers investigated breed registrations before and after the movie came out. Importantly, to make sure they weren’t simply capturing a particular breed’s already-increasing popularity, they investigated “changes in registration trends rather than in registrations per se.” This way, they were able to assess dog post-movie registrations that were increases over what was expected based on the pre-movie trend.
Movies Make the Dog
Like Heather Graham’s outfit making its way onto the street, what we see on the big screen can end up in our homes. The Dog Movie Star Effect is real. After the release of movies like The Shaggy Dog, 101 Dalmatians and Lassie Come Home, AKC puppy registration increased at a rate greater than would be expected for Sheepdogs, Dalmatians, and Collies, respectively. But the Dog Movie Star Effect is not absolute. For example, registration for Cairn Terriers did not increase at such a rate after Toto accompanied Dorothy to the Land of Oz.
Interestingly, the Dog Movie Star Effect is not what it once was. A dog traveling from the silver screen to the end of your leash was much more likely in the early and mid-twentieth century than today, possibly, the researchers suggest, because more and more movies each year feature dogs. On top of that, there is increased competition coming from dogs on television or elsewhere on the Internet.
Should Your Next Dog be a Movie Star?
You loved The Artist. How amazing was Uggie? Should you bring your own Uggie home? Probably not a great way to pick a dog. First, movie dogs are not necessarily representations of real dogs. Instead, movie dogs are highly trained individuals. What they do on the screen is not necessarily what a dog would do or be like in a real home without a trainer and assisting staff. Dogs of the screen learn to perform behaviors that we then perceive as “thoughtful” or “heroic.” Some dogs are made to act “bright,” others are “dimwitted.” While movie dogs are certainly exceptional, they are exceptional for playing a part. In fact, it could be difficult to find the actual dog in dog movie stars.
Animal Stars: Behind the Scenes With Your Favorite Animal Actors, a new book from the American Humane Association (@AmericanHumane, @RobinGanzert), has a great example of this. Remember Uggie? Your favorite? Before becoming a world-wide sensation, Uggie, according to Animal Stars, was being rehomed because “he is crazy. He does bad things, like chasing [the] cats, and is way too hyperactive.” Under different guidance, Uggie became the first dog to add his paws to Hollywood's Walk of Fame. His memoir, Uggie -- My Story was published in 2012. The lesson: the Uggie of the screen was not the Uggie of the home.
Additionally, dogs who are popular do not always have optimal welfare. An earlier study found that the most popular breeds tend to experience more inherited disorders. The researchers comment that “breeds with more inherited disorders have been more popular, rather than less popular, suggesting that health considerations have been secondary in the decision to acquire dogs…” When deciding to bring a dog home, it seems people are not necessarily considering a breed’s susceptibility to inherited disorders.
Fads and trends don’t begin and end with Heather Graham’s latest outfit. Instead, they can extend to decisions as seemingly personal and individualized as the companion dog we bring home.
What made you bring home the dog that you did?
Asher L., Jennifer F. Summers, Paul D. McGreevy & Lisa M. Collins (2009). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: Disorders related to breed standards, The Veterinary Journal, 182 (3) 402-411. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.08.033
Ghirlanda S., Harold Herzog & James A. Serpell (2013). Fashion vs. Function in Cultural Evolution: The Case of Dog Breed Popularity, PLoS ONE, 8 (9) e74770. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0074770
Ghirlanda S. & Harold Herzog (2014). Dog Movie Stars and Dog Breed Popularity: A Case Study in Media Influence on Choice, PLoS ONE, 9 (9) e106565. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106565