The changing face of “America’s dog” — and what it says about us

An examination of our various canine love affairs, from postwar era's working dogs to the designer breeds of today

By Brett Bachman
Published July 4, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)
Golden retriever puppy laying on an American flag (Getty Images/Mike Bagley)
Golden retriever puppy laying on an American flag (Getty Images/Mike Bagley)

As the COVID-19 pandemic first swept through the United States a year ago, dog adoptions skyrocketed. One estimate from PetPoint, which keeps statistics on the number of animals currently in the American shelter system, found that adoptions were up more than 12% in 2020 — after years of declining numbers. Anecdotal reports from breeders suggest demand for new puppies followed this trajectory as well. 

Perhaps no dog captured the 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. 

It's currently the most hashtagged breed on Instagram, with full-blown celebrity ambassadors like Manny, Benny, Oscar, and, of course, Walter, whose human-sounding wails have earned him nearly three-quarters of a million followers. The Frenchie's popularity is also in no small part due to its status as a recent favorite for human celebrities as well: Reese Witherspoon, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio . . . (the list goes on, trust me).

Weighing in around 20 pounds, and possessing too many health problems to require or even in many cases handle vigorous exercise, the Frenchie is the perfect size for carrying around town and languid enough for endless photoshoots, making it the perfect accessory of sorts for well-heeled urban dwellers — the exact demographic who managed to thrive professionally and financially during a once-in-a-generation societal disruption. "I've sold more dogs to people in New York City than anywhere else in the country," says Louis Sosa, a Louisiana-based French Bulldog breeder. "You can't walk more than a block in that city without running into a Frenchie at the end of a leash."

For these reasons, many owners laud the breed for inverting the typical dog-adoption story: rather than owners being forced to change their lives to accomodate a new pet, the French bulldog was created — quite intentionally — to thrive at a more human pace of life. 

"The word I always use to describe the Frenchie is adaptable," said Brandi Hunter, the vice president of communications at the American Kennel Club. "It's a dog that is happy to go out and meet people and be active, but ultimately it thrives doing whatever you're doing. And during a period where there wasn't much to do, if you're on the couch watching Netflix, your Frenchie is on the couch watching Netflix. If you're working on your laptop, your Frenchie is right there at your feet."

The surge in demand, however, has caused a supply-side crisis for breeders, who are particularly incapable of scaling up to meet demand. Due to the size of the French bulldog's head, pregnancy is especially problematic for the breed, which often must be delivered via C-section. Prices for French bulldog puppies have soared to more than $7,000 in some cases, which has in turn prompted numerous thefts. Most notably, a dogwalker for Lady Gaga was shot and two of her prize Frenchies, Koji and Gustav, were stolen earlier this year in a brazen daylight robbery. She offered half a million dollars for their return, and one of the suspects later came forward, but not until a spate of news stories about the spike in Frenchie-related thefts conquered U.S. airwaves. 

The country's harried love affair with the French bulldog certainly isn't the first of its kind. As Mark Cushing writes in "Pet Nation: A Love Affair that Changed America," during just two years in the early 2000s, the number of humans living in the United States increased 1.7% — while the canine population spiked more than 13%. That trend hasn't let up in the years since, with more than 60% of U.S. households owning a dog in 2020, according to a survey from the Insurance Information Institute. 

What happened? And how did we get here?

* * *

America's obsession with dogs is — like all other uniquely American obsessions — a preoccupation with celebrity and the all-consuming power of media. 

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, during which the nascent advertising and financial industries built the modern consumer culture we know today. These were primarily working dogs, but as America built its middle class, pet ownership quickly became a status symbol. 

"Peanuts," Charles Schultz' classic representation of Middle American childhood, introduced the country to a new dog: Snoopy the beagle. In the face of the comic strip's immutable portrayal of social isolation and anxiety (Charlie Brown never did kick that football), Snoopy's lighthearted antics and extravagant imagination made the eager canine a bona fide megastar — soon, his likeness was a bestselling toy, one of the most successful write-in U.S. presidential candidates in history and eventually an official mascot for NASA. In the years following Snoopy's debut in 1950, the beagle, a British breed originally raised to hunt rabbits and other small game, became a sensation. 

Perhaps no other animal occupies as large a space in the human consciousness as the domestic dog. Myths in nearly every human culture have held man's best friend as paragons of bravery and loyalty, sure, but also deception and betrayal. This is to say that dogs exist, in stories of every era, mainly as extensions of ourselves: a piece of the wildness we've lost somewhere along the way, perhaps, or a representation of the unconditional virtue modern life has slowly eroded. 

So it stands to reason that the story of man's best friend in the United States would also exist as a projection of our own. As television became a daily fixture in Americans' lives, so too was the constant presence of a national narrative, which soon incorporated the country's favorite four-legged friends.

President Gerald Ford's Golden Retriever, Liberty, was a favorite prop among the White House press corps, which went wild when she gave birth to a litter of nine puppies on the grounds of the White House. Liberty quickly became a national celebrity, and staff famously signed portraits, requested by her many fans, with a rubber stamp of her pawprint. 

President Gerald Ford and his pet dog Liberty in the Oval Office.
President Gerald Ford and his pet Golden Retriever, Liberty, in the Oval Office. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Liberty was, of course, just the latest in a long line of presidential pets, but there was something distinct about the Retriever that the country latched onto over the next few decades. Ronald Reagan, whose main strength was arguably the ability to deploy metaphor and deftly construct media narratives, also acquired a Golden Retriever puppy during his successful 1980 campaign. In the following years, both the Golden and its close cousin, the Labrador Retriever, towered over the U.S. dog market — a trend that continues to this day. 

The Golden Retriever in particular cemented its status as an American icon through its domination of traditional media near the turn of the millennium. "These big blonde beauties were the most popular advertising gimmick of the '90s," the first chapter of "Golden Retrievers for Dummies" declares, not to mention the breed's simultaneous domination of serialized television.

In particular, America fell for Comet, a scene-stealing Golden adopted by the Tanner family on ABC's smash-hit sitcom, "Full House" — cementing the breed's status as a "cultural phenomenon," according to the American Kennel Club.

The breed was, in many ways, a mirror for the country's aspirations. 

As the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States found itself all out of enemies. It was, as Francis Fukuyama famously wrote, "The End of History." As the story goes, America's neverending economic expansion had just begun — half the country lived in suburbs ringing major cities, and the rest weren't far behind, it seemed.

The Golden Retriever, a quintessential family dog — obedient to a fault, great around kids and other people, active enough to require space and, often, a yard — was the perfect symbol of America's hopes at the turn of the century: homeownership, and by extension a certain measure of affluence and security, seemed within reach for more people than ever before. Popular media, in turn, reflected this narrative right back at us.

As with all foundational myths, however, there remained a missing piece: the villain.

* * *

Any history of the American dog — of America, period — without a chapter on the pit bull would be, well, incomplete. 

As Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 2014: "There is no other dog that figures as often in the national narrative — no other dog as vilified on the evening news, no other dog as defended on television programs, no other dog as mythologized by both its enemies and its advocates, no other dog as discriminated against, no other dog as wantonly bred, no other dog as frequently abused, no other dog as promiscuously abandoned, no other dog as likely to end up in an animal shelter, no other dog as likely to be rescued, no other dog as likely to be killed. 

"In a way, the pit bull has become the only American dog, because it is the only American dog that has become an American metaphor — and the only American dog that people bother to name. When a cocker spaniel bites, it does so as a member of its species; it is never anything but a dog. When a pit bull bites, it does so as a member of its breed. A pit bull is never anything but a pit bull."

The central irony of the American pit bull, then, is that it is not technically a breed at all, but a constantly shifting list of "characteristics" often compiled not to classify the animals but ban them. 

According to the advocacy group DogsBite, which agitates for municipalities to ban "dangerous breeds," more than 900 cities in the United States currently have laws on the books banning pit bulls. In most of Iowa, Missouri and Kansas it is illegal to own one, and the same is true of Miami, Ontario, Canada, and the whole United Kingdom. They are also banned in most U.S. public housing complexes and on all of the country's military bases. A number of large insurance companies even refuse to serve owners of dogs who meet their specifications. 

Denver, which repealed its longstanding ban on pit bulls earlier this year, described them as such: "a pit bull is defined as any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one (1) or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds."

To put a finer point on it: the pit bull's story is, in actuality, a narrative of the American mutt. And just as the Golden Retriever had cemented itself as a symbol of the growing white middle class during the 1970s and '80s, at the height of the American empire, the pit bull quickly became a symbol for the dark undercurrent of social ills the country just couldn't seem to shake: poverty, drug use, gun violence, AIDS.

The pit bull, like most mutts from history, became synonymous with the inner city, and as the inner city splintered and money fled from those spaces, the pit bull came to represent all of the problems festering in the shadow of America's big cities — and, more than anything else, the shifting demographics of those places. 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.

It's a concept deeply familiar to Bronwen Dickey, the author of "Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon," who told the Los Angeles Review of Books that as she set out to research the topic, she was shocked at the way people spoke about pit bulls, often using language that many would otherwise recognize as racist.

"One of the first things I noticed was how many people who were wary of pit bulls immediately pivoted to talking about 'the kind of person who owns them,'" she said. "And they would talk about thugs and drug dealers and gangbangers. Those are the cultural associations people bring to the table when they talk about these dogs."

It would be hard to chart the development of this image without mentioning the incessant media coverage given to pit bulls and, in particular, the scourge of dogfighting during this era. Despite scant evidence to show that the problem was as widespread as its detractors seemed to insinuate, dogfighting became to many a disgusting sign of the moral rot at the center of the capitalist project, and to others an admittedly problematic-but-nonetheless nostalgic pastime that hearkened back to the brutality of the American frontier. "I am not defending fighting dogs," the novelist Harry Crews wrote in another piece for Esquire, but "I wonder why we can't tell the truth about blood sports, which would go a long way to telling the truth about ourselves. We are a violent culture." 

Starting in the 1970s, the United States also began locking up more people — disproportionately from poor and minority communities — than ever before, a trend that continues to this day despite the fact that crime began falling in the 1990s and remains at near historic lows.

The same tough-on-crime carceral strategies the United States imposed on its human population trickled down to its pets as well, with 6.5 million dogs today — higher estimates find that pit bulls make up more than 80% of that number — locked up in shelters and all too often euthanized. Statistics compiled by the ASPCA show that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 pit bulls are killed every day in America, a cruel mirror of the 1.8 million people currently languishing in our jails and prisons, even after COVID-19 forced authorities to clear out nearly 14% of the country's incarcerated population last year.

* * *

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly the campaign to rehabilitate the pit bull's image began in earnest, but it's safe to say that sometime in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the same characteristics that once inspired fear had now, in the face of a prevailing culture that said the country was facing an existential attack on its values and way of life, become laudable national attributes. America was at war once again, and found itself on the hunt for new wartime symbols.

Long held as "vicious" or even "barbaric," pit bulls quickly became "courageous," a representation of valor and strength in the face of conflict for many observers, who sought out the dogs in record numbers. The detractors remained, of course, but were now met by frenzied supporters of the embattled dogs at city council meetings and community events wherever attempts to ban the animals picked up steam.

There was one news story in particular that seemed to turn the tide for the once-vilified pit bull: the 2007 saga of NFL quarterback Michael Vick and Bad Newz Kennels, the interstate dogfighting ring orchestrated by the fan-favorite southpaw and his close associates. In subsequent news coverage, the dogs — over 70 of them — were referred to by name, and described at length, using terms like "smart," "goofy" and "people-friendly." Letters of support for the animals poured into the Virginia court handling Vick's case. The judge later decided to study, and ultimately spare, most of the animals. 

Nearly two years later, Sweet Jasmine, a tan-colored pit bull rescued from Bad Newz, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, along with a massive story checking in on the animals' progress. Crucially, the piece afforded the dogs something that had been denied to previous generations of pit bulls: individuality.

The popularity of the pit bull only increased during the years following 2008, as the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression left many out of work and impoverished — the '90s dream of universal homeownership collapsing under the weight of reality. Many turned to dog breeding, a legal business with relatively low overhead, as a lifeline. Pit bulls, already numerous, were particular favorites.

In turn, an entire ecosystem of reality TV emerged to satiate America's urge to rescue and train these previously maligned creatures — with the once-floundering premium cable channel "Animal Planet" championing their cause. 

These programs included "Pit Boss," a series that follows Luigi "Shorty" Rossi, a "little person with a big heart," as the show's tagline goes, who rescues pit bulls that are often bigger than him; "Pit Bulls and Parolees," a self-explanatory series about the life-altering relationship between the recently incarcerated and their dogs; as well as the National Geographic Channel's dog obedience show "The Dog Whisperer with Caesar Milan," which often featured Milan's own pit bulls, Daddy and Junior, as well as redemption narratives for other ill-behaved pit bulls.

"We don't have a problem with the breed — we have a problem with education," Milan writes on his website. And for the first time in a generation, it appeared people were listening.

* * *

If there's an "it" dog of the 2020s so far, the French bulldog is certainly takes the prize.

American Kennel Club statistics show an 830% increase in new registrations for the breed over the past decade, thanks in no small part to its dominance of social media and widespread adoption by the celebrity class.

It's difficult to talk about changing consumer tastes in post-pandemic America, however, without mentioning the basic economic realities at play: as the Millennial generation turns the corner into middle age, research from the Federal Reserve shows the cohort owns just under 5% of the country's wealth. At the same period in their own lives, baby boomers had a whopping 21%, a financial cushion that fueled widespread homeownership and a suite of consumer goods that Millennials and Generation Z may never be able to afford. These younger generations are also urbanizing at a rapid clip, driving a nationwide trend that saw America's urban population jump from 75% in 1990 to 82% in 2020, according to the World Bank.

Many rental units come with stipulations on the size of dog landlords will allow — if they allow one at all — and it follows that as the United States increasingly becomes a country of urban renters, the size and shape of our pets will change as well.

It's no coincidence, either, that the digital convenience culture and just-in-time shipping that Americans have become accustomed to has also bled over into the way its people see their four-legged friends. Much ink has been spilled over the trend toward "designer dogs" like the French bulldog — small, carefully curated purebreds and cross-breeds that have been engineered to display specific traits: the low-shedding Cockapoo, hypoallergenic Labradoodles, and the miniature Australian shepherds that seem to overnight have taken over the trendiest brunch spots in every major American city.

But all of the consumer choices we've come to expect from every other sector of the economy in this instance have a very real cost beyond the price tag: namely, in the dogs' health. As we continue inbreeding to select for desired traits, the resulting animals are increasingly unhealthy. 

To get a healthy French bulldog, it's especially important to go through a good breeder — but despite humans' best intentions, many of the physical problems that plague the breed are directly related to the appearance many owners profess to love. The flat face, wide eyes and perky ears are all contributors to the debilitating infections and respiratory issues that are hallmarks of brachycephalic — or flat-faced — breeds, and today's Frenchies are often doomed to nerve pain and spinal problems later in life.

As the quest to create the smallest, lowest maintenance and most photogenic dog reaches its zenith, it appears all of the features we seek are least beneficial for the animals themselves.

It's a paradox Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and the author of Our Dogs, Ourselves, claims has its roots in our own narcissism as a species. "I think there's a good reason to believe that one of the things we like about a shorter-nosed dog is that they more resemble a human primate face," she said during an interview last year with the Australian broadcasting Corporation, adding: "We need to acknowledge that it's gone too far."

* * *

What does it mean for the United States that our culture so routinely and aggressively seeks to project its own image onto its dogs? 

As we emerge from the plague year, full of stress and plagued by social isolation, the nation's increasingly pessimistic narrative reaching a fever pitch, it only stands to reason that we begin to look inward. Facing a deficit of social interaction and political control, Americans were bound to seek those things in other parts of their lives.

The investment firm Morgan Stanley estimates that the pet-care industry will triple in size over the next decade as pet ownership — particularly dogs — continues to expand. Real estate firms say that veterinary medicine is one of the few bright spots in their commercial market as demand for office space continues to flag. 

More people are buying pets than ever, and many of those will be expected to fit perfectly into their owners' perfectly bottled, urban knowledge-economy lives. As a result, breeders, and not just those contending with the physical toll of French bulldog pregnancies, are having a hard time keeping up with demand for prestige breeds. 

All of this points to a looming companion animal crisis, with grifters and high-volume breeders — cue the impending moral panic over "puppy mills" — stepping up to fill the void. Organizations from the American Kennel Club to the ASPCA all advocate extensive research before picking up a new pet, especially a dog. Different breeds require different accomodations, and anyone picking up a new puppy should always perform a cursory background check of the breeder. 

Last December, in Pennsylvania, an online puppy scammer from Cameroon was arrested for catfishing lonely Americans out of thousands of dollars, promising perfectly miniature Chihuahuas and dachshunds. At his sentencing, the federal judge made a point of mentioning the Department of Justice's zeal for punishing "criminals who seek to exploit American's particular fondness for animals." 

Adding particular sting to the crime, he said, was the fact that "the desire for companionship is higher than ever."


Brett Bachman

Brett Bachman is the Nights/Weekend Editor at Salon.

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America Covid-19 Deep Dive Dogs French Bulldog Golden Retriever History Pets Pit Bull Politics United States