French bulldog wins top spot over labrador as some of the most quintessentially British breeds are pronounced 'vulnerable' by the KC.
24 puppy registrations with the Kennel Club (KC) in 2017
40 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
Glen of Imaal terrier
48 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
50 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
53 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
56 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
60 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
Irish water spaniel
69 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
Irish red-and-white setter
70 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
Smooth fox terrier
82 puppy registrations with the KC in 2017
What a pity that the great Alfred Munnings, in painting My Wife, My Horse and Myself, was not inspired to add to the picture ‘My Dog’. So devoted were the Munningses to their Pekingese Black Knight that it was stuffed on its death and Lady Munnings continued to carry it about under her arm, lifeless but lifelike.
Once upon a time, the Pekingese enjoyed considerable popularity as a breed. More recently, its perceived desirability has plummeted, eclipsed entirely by that of the shih tzu; Pekingese are as rare in Britain’s parks and gardens as a new novel on Waterstones’ bookshelves by the late peke-fancying Barbara Cartland.
Canine fashion is nothing new. As long ago as the 1950s, short-story writer William Sansom could ask ‘Where have all the Sealyhams gone?’, a question that is equally valid 70 years on.
There are serious implications, however, in the fluctuating fortunes of the 220 dog breeds recognised by the Kennel Club (KC). Earlier this summer, when the KC published puppy-registration figures for the first quarter of the year, they revealed that, for the first time since 1990, the labrador retriever is no longer the nation’s favourite dog.
The top spot currently belongs to the French bulldog, a breed that has seen its popularity – in terms of numbers of puppies registered by reputable breeders – increase by nearly 3,000% over the past decade.
Worryingly, this rise wasn’t anticipated 10 years ago. It’s mostly attributable to celebrity endorsement: Hugh Jackman, Lady Gaga and the Beckhams all own French bulldogs. Such is the power of celebrity culture – bolstered by Twitter, Instagram and the ever-eddying tides of social media – that where celebrities lead, others follow.
However, I am not aware that Mr Jackman, Lady Gaga or Mr and Mrs Beckham (who also own a cocker spaniel) are – or claim to be – dog experts. There are pitfalls when a dog is chosen like a pair of sunglasses or a handbag as a means of easy-access celebrity lifestyle.
The six most popular dog breeds in Britain – French bulldogs, labradors, cocker and English springer spaniels, pugs and bulldogs – account for more puppy registrations than all the remaining 214 breeds of dog.
Given that only one third of British-born puppies is registered with the KC, French bulldogs and labradors each notch up something in the region of 40,000 puppies a year. These are the winners in Britain’s dog-breed lottery.
Some 27 breeds record fewer than 300 puppies a year and, in three cases, the Skye terrier, the Glen of Imaal terrier and the otterhound, fewer than 50 puppies a year.
It is for this reason that the KC launched an initiative in 2003 that was targeted at native British breeds in crisis due to lack of popularity and the small size of their breed pool. Fifteen years later, every breed identified remains on the Vulnerable Native Breeds list.
Nine further breeds registering fewer than 500 puppies a year are on an At Watch list.
There’s no simple explanation for the fall from grace of dogs mostly bred for working purposes in previous centuries. Norwich, Dandie Dinmont, Sealyham and Skye terriers can all make excellent family pets. Clumber spaniels can be trained as first-rate, tenacious gun dogs. The Sussex spaniel is stubborn, but intensely affectionate.
Given the nature of its coat, the Irish water spaniel is a suitable choice for many pet-allergy sufferers. If the smooth-coated fox terrier is occasionally mischievous, it’s also intelligent, energetic and companionable.
A Glen of Imaal terrier I met recently was one of the most delightful, playful, coquettish little barrels of wiry fur I’ve ever encountered.
And which breed could enjoy celebrity endorsement more august than that of the Pembroke Welsh corgi, which only narrowly avoided this year’s At Watch list? (Its Cardiganshire cousin, with only 141 puppies registered in 2017, was less fortunate.)
Our native dog breeds are as much a part of our cultural inheritance as Stubbs’s horse paintings, Robert Adam’s buildings, Dickens’s novels and Britten’s operas. They play their part in the fragile construct of our island identity as surely as Sarson’s vinegar and Twinings tea.
Any visitor to London’s art galleries can experience Stubbs’s genius, houses by Adam are open to the public up and down the country, Sunday-evening television keeps Dickens’s flame burning even for the non-reader and there will always be performances of Britten’s work while the Aldeburgh Festival thrives, but our endangered native dog breeds have become virtually invisible.
If we choose our pets on the basis of celebrity endorsement rather than suitability, we limit not only our choice, but, potentially, that of generations to come. For would-be dog owners, it’s time to buy British.
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