As you may know, a movie about a military dog, Max, is getting a lot of attention. I just read a summary of the plot, which convinced me that I’ll be better off watching bad TV at home while rubbing my dogs’ bellies than going to see it. It might be a great movie, who knows, (although the reviews are not stellar), but in it Max the Malinois is brought back from Afghanistan after watching his handler be shot and killed by another American soldier, later is chained and abandoned alone in a backyard, then severely injured fighting off two “bad guy” dogs. Next, he is accused of seriously biting a person, taken away by animal control to a pound, from which he escapes, and then… Enough. Sorry, I had a hard enough time watching the Border Collie in the movie Babe be wrongly accused of killing sheep. And that lasted about ten minutes. This is an entire movie.
But whether you find a dog in distress entertaining or not, movies do a lot more than provide a distracting, air conditioned environment on a hot day. Movies with dogs can have a significant effect on what kind of dog becomes popular with the public for as much as the next ten years. Research by Ghirlanda, Acerbi and Herzog found it was indeed true that that the breed of a dog in a popular movie movies affects breed choice. The authors went beyond looking for a correlation between a movie’s release and the breed’s popularity, given that a breed could be chosen for movie stardom because it is becoming more popular–a chicken and egg kind of problem. Rather, the researchers looked for a change in trends in breed popularity, a better marker of whether a movie influenced the public’s selection of what dog to get next, or not.
The authors found strong evidence that the breed of a dog in a popular movie had an effect on breed popularity. For example, registrations for Labrador retrievers increased at an average rate of 452/dogs/year in the 10 years before The Incredible Journey was released in 1963. But it increased at a rate of 2,223 dog/year in the ten years after.
It’s one thing to see a marked rise in the popularity of a retriever or a rough-coated collie, as happened after The Incredible Journey and Lassie Come Home. I think everyone in the field agrees, especially Malinois breeders, that the worst thing for this particular breed could be a surge in novice dog owners bringing home a Malinois puppy. The American Belgian Malinois Breed Club has a paragraph on their home page that doesn’t mince words. It includes: “This is NOT your Typical Pet Dog… If you are looking for a beautiful animal to just sit at home with you, or to be left to its own designs, do NOT choose a Malinois. These dogs are bred to be taught and assigned tasks, and then to perform them at the highest levels of their mental and physical capabilities. And underutilized dog is a frustrated dog. And a frustrated dog is not a good housemate.”
All good, but I remember the multitude of Border collies that ended up in the wrong home after the movie Babe came out. And this happened in spite of relentless warnings from breeders and experts that Border collies make lousy pets for most people. After Babe came out I saw a lot of clients who had bored, semi-crazy Border collies, and to a person, they said that they’d heard the warnings, and thought something like “It’ll be okay. I’ll be different.” The fact is, repeating a dog’s finest qualities (BC – smart, beautiful, responsive; Malinois – “highly intelligent, elegant, athletic & muscular”), and then saying “this dog is only for select people” is a great way to make someone want one. Just ask advertisers, who are well aware that “only for a select few” is inherently attractive to people and sells more of whatever they are offering.
Is there a way around this? I don’t know, but here, at least, is one idea taken from another context. For years I’d run into people who, when asked to stay a few feet away from a fearful and potentially aggressive dog would say “Oh, it’s okay! Dogs love me! I have a gift” (women) or “It’s okay, I’m not afraid of him,” (men). For years I’d swallow the impulse to say “But it’s not about you!”, and then position myself between them and the dog, mostly to protect the dog. But eventually I learned to do the following:
“Oh, thank you SO much,” I’d say before the person approaching could get too close to the dog. “I’m so grateful that you are clearly someone who understands dogs, and knows that getting too close would just set back our treatment plan. You know, I run into people all the time who just blunder up and scare the dog, rather than staying back and tossing the treats. I’m so glad that you are so knowledgeable about dog behavior!” No way is this person going to leave the select group of “dog experts” into which they’ve been elected, and become like “those other people” who don’t know enough to stay outside of a dog’s comfort zone during treatment.
Totally honest? No? Manipulative? Yes. But it helped a lot of dogs, and didn’t hurt anyone. Perhaps this is a useful tact to take when talking to a family with novice dog training skills who is considering getting a Malinois? “Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned the movie Max! Thank heaven’s you’re dog savy, and would never be one of those people who get a Malinois just because they saw one in a movie!”
That’s just one way to address the “dog breed in the movie” issue if it comes up in a conversation you are having. But surely there are lots of other alternatives that you’ve used over the years. I’d love to hear what you have to say if this this issue has come up? Or did you once get a breed of dog that, in hind sight, was perhaps not the wisest choice? (Can you spell “Saint Bernard puppy” and newly married 19 year old Trisha, about to move to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona?) Would anything have influenced you back then to change your mind?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Well, just back to the farm. The BCs, Jim and I spent a lovely weekend at some good friends’ cabin in the woods. Long walks on beautiful trails through the woods, watching damsel flies mating on the pond sedges, being scolded by a pair of yellowthroats for getting too close to their nest. We took two relaxing boat rides on Lake Michigan, during which everyone else did all the work because Jim and I, farmers of the soil and not mateys of the water, are pretty much worthless in a marine environment. We soon discovered it was best for everyone if we just stayed out of the way. But when one of the fishing lines dipped, our hosts graciously turned to Jim’s to haul it in. We drove home with a 10 lb King Salmon in the cooler and had some of it for dinner Sunday night. Yummmm. A huge thanks to Barb and Don for being such wonderful hosts; we needed a break from farm work, and the weekend was exactly what the doctor ordered. Here is the cabin’s charming woodshed, built with the same materials as the cabin.
We returned home to Tootsie and some very hot sheep. They had actually dug holes in the ground (deep ones, seriously) so that they could lie in cooler earth. Maggie and I got them herded back to the cool of barn, which is half underground and has a fan. It’s cooled off a bit, thank heavens, but supposed to heat up again later in the week. Poor babies, no air conditioning for them.
Once home, the day lilies said hello. Lots and lots of them.
Very July 4th-y colors, if you ask me. They lilies will bloom for weeks, so our garden is going to be great fun for quite a while. Now, if it would just cool off a little bit…