The Movie Effect
The phenomenon of breed popularity spiking in reaction to a dog’s prominence in a movie or TV show is an old one, but one that bears some reflection.
We’ve all seen those wonderfully cute dogs in movies and television. The ones that rescue their owners, show steadfast loyalty, accomplish amazing feats, and do the most endearing tricks. But what many people don’t seem to realize is that all of these dogs have been taught the behavior they are attempting to portray. The dogs don’t inherently save Timmy from falling in the well every darned week.
Movies and television shows like this abound. Hachi, Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin, Eddie, Wishbone, Benji, Yellow Dog, Beethoven, Marley and now more recently Cosmo in the much acclaimed film ‘Beginners’ staring Christopher Plummer. Although these animals were popular and, indeed, made many of these shows a great success, what effect does it have on the breed? Most often, inadvertently, a negative one.
With the advent of Wishbone and Frasier, the Jack Russell Terrier became one of the most popular dogs in the nation. Suddenly everybody wanted one of those bundles of cuteness that would sit in your lap, do amazing tricks, let you dress it up in costumes and generally behave in an exemplary manner. Disreputable breeders and puppy mill owners immediately took advantage of this opportunity and began to indiscriminately breed Jacks as quickly as they could. They paid little attention to temperament, conformation or inbreeding. The just wanted to crank out as many pups as possible. It’s difficult to argue with a commodity that would sell for $400 to $800 a pup.
Reputable breeders will tell you all about the breed you’re buying. Not just the positive aspects, but also the ones that are more difficult to live with. Jacks are genetically wired to hunt. They’re incredibly smart little dogs that must have a job to do or they will get into trouble. If you give a Jack an inch it will take over. Border Collies are bred to herd, Akita’s to guard and hunt. But sadly most of the breeders in it for the money will exclude the facts in order to make the sale, and this is where potential owners get into trouble.
Neophyte owners now expect that this cute little puppy will innately grow up to know how to sit, stay, fetch the paper, and empty the garbage. What they don’t consider is that these dogs are trained actors. The trouble with movies like this is that they present an unrealistic portrayal to the average owner. Yes some dogs can be loyal beyond the average, but to paint a whole breed as exceptional because of one individual is unfair to the real dogs out there. A well-behaved dog takes lots of work, be it Chihuahua or GreatDane.
Jack Russell’s are a frequent target because they’re exceptionally intelligent, highly appealing and never seem to run out of energy. And these are exactly the traits that also make it one of the most difficult to own. But you never see an ad for a Jack Russell pup that states “Jack Russell’s for sale. Will dig up your garden, chew your sofa, eat your shoes, take over the household, but look damned cute doing it.”
I’m certain the Jack Russell rescues are gearing up yet again for the onslaught of pups about to be surrendered in high numbers to their facilities. I’ve personally seen many wonderful dogs that, with just a modicum of behavior management, would have made terrific family members. Instead dogs are given up to rescues because the owners didn’t have a clue that the Collie they bought didn’t even know what a well was, much less how to rescue a kid who seems to fall down one every other day! I cringe when I see movies of this sort, and at the same time can’t help myself. I love a really good flick that involves an animal of some sort doing incredible things. But you never see people in the movies giving dogs up to shelters for misbehaving – think about Beethoven, Hooch and Marley to name a few. In the movies bad behavior is endearing in real life it can be sobering.
The movie Hachi was a terrific film, and although I was angry that nobody took the dog home with them and kept him there, I enjoyed it tremendously. But the unrealistic portrayal of the Akita, I’m certain, had most Akita rescues cringing. The Akita is not the easiest of breeds either. The dog was an ACTOR doing what he was trained to do.
Picking a breed of dog is the beginning of your adventure and in truth I think we overemphasize the importance of ‘breed’. Breed is certainly a consideration but we let common breed traits eclipse the importance of the individual, as though breed definitively determines a dog’s personality. The Pitbull is a perfect example in reverse about how a breed has suffered due to public portrayal. Dog owners need to do their homework, rescue facilities and breeders need to be diligent in letting a potential adopter know all the traits, the desirable ones as well as those that may or may not become a behavioral issue in the future.
It all comes down to this one thing. The more time you spend with your dog, no matter the breed, the more reward you glean. It’s just like children. The behavior you expect and work towards will be what you get in the end. And while I don’t have an answer to ‘The Movie Effect’ I do believe that there is potential in every dog out there, bred or mutt, and time is the key to unlocking everything good about a dog.