Once the interwebz had evolved, those statistics were easy to find, handy to access on the AKC's site -- and announced with fanfare and fatuous press releases every January -- "Labrador Retriever is America's Top Dog Fourth Year in a Row -- Yorkshire Terrier Closing In."
But starting in 1992, the statistics tell a more interesting story than the timeless drama of poodles vs. Rottweilers.
From what is itself an outlying peak of over 1.5 million registrations in 1992, the numbers went into an immediate tailspin -- not a slow, steady decline, not an accelerating curve, but an impressive nosedive. By 2002, AKC registered fewer than a million new dogs -- over a one-third reduction in registrations over the course of a decade.
One institutional response to this extraordinary development was to circle the wagons and stop putting those registration statistics out where people like me could see them. That will fix it!
According to the AVMA, in 2001 Americans owned 61,572,000 dogs. 36% of American households included one or more dogs. By 2007, 37% of US households owned 72,114,000 dogs. And the average number of dogs per dog-owning household increased from 1.6 to 1.7.
Dog ownership rates increased slightly over that six year period, the human population increased, the number of households increased, and the total number of owned dogs jumped by over ten million animals! During the same period, AKC annual purebred registrations dropped -- as I've just learned, by 300,000.
No wonder they've circled the wagons.
But, you say, wouldn't a well-run business try to find out why they were losing market share, and then do what they needed to do to change that?
Of course it would. We'll get back to that.
I was surprised to find that the AKC recently allowed a gross account of its registration statistics to be published here.
No surprise, the tailspin has not abated.
In 2008, the AKC registered the same number of dogs it did in 1965 -- the year I was born. Even more dramatic, when the data controls for the size of human population -- number of dogs registered with AKC / human population -- the potential revenue loss shitstorm from 1992 to 2008 is more on the order of 62%.
Now, the article from the ag-industry astroturf organization NAIA would have us believe that the reasons the AKC's registrations are dropping are:
• New laws and regulations that target breeders
• Imports of purebred puppies*
• 30 years of bad publicity about breeders
Reality: none of the above.
AKC isn't drowning. It's in quicksand. It jumped in by itself. All of its witless struggles just send it deeper. And as it screams abuse and curses at its former subjects, fewer and fewer of them are feeling inclined to throw it a rope and get pulled in themselves.
The real reasons for the drop in registrations have something to do with general cultural trends and consumer behavior, and quite a lot to do with the behavior of the AKC itself, past and present. These factors interact with one another, form feedback loops, weave into a full picture and become effectively impossible to parse out into separate threads. Nevertheless, I'll give it the old college try.
10. Televised Dog Shows
Does watching the Miss USA pageant on television make you want to run right out and buy a JonBenet Ramsay Junior Pageant Whore-Baby kit for your daughter?
Yeah, I didn't think so.
Westminster and other televised dog shows do nothing to encourage regular dog owners to become "dog fanciers." While they are moderately popular with viewers -- so are reality TV shows featuring freaks, misfits, drama queens and assorted object lessons.
As your teacher tried to tell you, They aren't laughing with you, they are laughing at you.
The viewers -- mostly dog lovers -- who watch for the weird dog haircuts, unfortunate handler fashion decisions, strange misshapen breeds, and tiny dogs with absurd names that weigh more than they do, are not gaining a higher opinion of the ACK, dog shows, and dog fanciers. The whole exercise in artificial glamor and hype for the cameras makes that world seem even more remote and bizarre.
9. Shelter Adoption
The last two decades have seen a revolution in attitudes towards dogs in animal shelters. Dogs that were formerly killed are now adopted as pets.
None of those dogs are producing purebred offspring to be registered. All of them are occupying a growing, but still finite number of slots in family homes.
There's a special place in my own black little heart for breeders who bitch about rescue because rescue adoptions deprive them of puppy sales. (Yes, really, I've had breeders complain to me about this, as if they would find a sympathetic ear.)
A registry that pisses and moans about essentially the same thing is no better.
Consumers began to become aware of the puppymill/pet store connection in the 1970's; awareness continued to grow through the eighties and nineties. The pet stores went on the defensive, with marketing spin that all their puppies came from USDA-registered breeders. (Read: puppymills.) "We buy our puppies from local breeders, not puppymills." Etc. The puppymill marketers and consumer consciousness have been in a sort of arms race of spin versus cognition for over 30 years, but in general, ordinary dog owners and would-be dog owners are aware that puppymills are bad and cruel and to be avoided.
Sadly, many dog buyers discover the provenance of their dog after the fact, when they are standing in a vet's office with a sick or psycho puppy and folder containing the receipt from Petland, a useless warranty, and the puppy's possibly fraudulent AKC "papers."
The postwar marketing scam that had duped American consumers into believing that "AKC-registered" was synonymous with "quality dog" was unraveling.
The AKC was not only willing to register pups that had passed from massive mill to wholesaler to retailer to unwitting pet buyer, it actively courted those revenues. Even when the little sales units weren't individually registered by their ultimate buyers, the AKC took a cut every time the beastie changed hands -- much more lucrative than a hobby or show breeder who sold a puppy just once to a pet buyer. Without the massive revenues of the puppymill industry to subsidize the swank Madison Avenue HQ and glittery dog shows, ACK would have been forced to scale back or require its vassal fanciers to bear the actual cost of their hobby.
Related post: At Least, Don't Buy This
7. Puppymill Registries
Ironically, the biggest hit on AKC registrations came as a direct result of ACK's single arguably good deed.
If the central function of an animal registry is to keep an accurate account of the pedigrees of the animals registered, the AKC was failing because of its long-standing policy of rubberstamping whatever the puppymills reported. It was an open secret that the sale of "papers" for breeding stock and the sale of the animals themselves were two independent and unrelated transactions in puppymill land. If a
The AKC's core constituency -- dog fanciers whose hobby is competing in dog pageants -- was understandably miffed about the open secret that their core values of pedigree accuracy and breed "purity" were overwhelmingly compromised.
In response, the AKC instituted their frequently used sires program, requiring that males that engendered more than a certain number of litters (it is now six, or three in one year, though I believe the initial thresholds were higher) be DNA typed.
The puppymill industry's reaction was to vote with their feet, and create their own papermills with cheaper fees and no questions asked. Not only do the ACA, APRI, CKC, et. al. issue bogus pedigrees for their core constituency, but they are happy to keep on doing so for the mill-puppy buyers turned backyard breeders whose classified ads are the last thing keeping dead-tree newspapers out of bankruptcy.
So now, most puppies bought at pet stores are not AKC-registered, and fewer and fewer of the pups sold by casual breeders and local direct-to-consumer puppymills are. Yesterday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pet classifieds included 58 ads for pups registered with AKC, as against 37 that mentioned no registry, 23 for cross-breds (almost all deliberate "designer dog" crosses) and 18 that mentioned "other" registries -- puppymill industry registries. However, most of the ads for deliberate crossbreds and many of the ones for ACA, WWKC, and other papermill-registered pups bore the field marks of direct-to-consumer mills -- websites, takes Visa, multiple litters listed in one ad -- so the number of pups sold per ad in that category is indubitably higher than the single litters listed.
No question, the Frequently Used Sire Program and concurrent crackdown on records violators -- steps the AKC took to assure its delegates and core customers that it was doing job they pay it to do -- severely cut into the profits. And there is probably no way for them to take it back without digging the hole deeper. Not that they aren't capable.
6. The Return to Normalcy
The practice of sending money to a stranger and accepting in return a sheet of paper that repeats the information you sent along with the money is a curious one, and it only goes back a little over a hundred years in this country. It was initially an indulgence of wealthy fanciers, and remained exclusively so for decades.
The wealthy fanciers also set the habit of paying someone to tell them what they could and could not do with their dogs -- the Government of Dogs proclaimed that there would be no race-mixing, that thus and such color or shape or fur texture was anathema, that ears must be amputated for this dog, but never for that one -- and their subjects jostled one another aside to be the first to obey. (Still cheaper than hiring a dominatrix or Frank Lloyd Wright, and the welts and structural defects are on the dog, not you.)
It wasn't until after the Second World War that very many ordinary middle-class people were convinced that they needed a "pedigree dog." (And there were never more than six AKC registered dogs per year per one thousand Americans, even at the outlying peak of registrations.)
The practice of registering dogs with, and paying obeisance to, an organization that is designed to indulge the hobby of a tiny proportion of dog owners, is a historical blip in the culture. Choosing not to register, not to follow "the rules," is more in keeping with the way that Americans -- humans -- have always kept pet and working dogs.
Rather than ask why Americans no longer register their pets with the AKC, we might seriously ask how it is that they were persuaded to do so, for no apparent benefit to themselves or their animals, for nearly fifty years.
5. Michael Lemonick and Mark Derr
In the March 1990 issue, The Atlantic published the first mainstream media critique of the institution of fancy breeding of dogs. Mark Derr laid out the harm to animal welfare and human needs that follows from selection for physical uniformity, closed studbooks, and exaggerated type in "The Politics of Dogs." (Not available online without paying $$ to The Atlantic.)
More than a decade later, Time's Michael Lemonick laid it all out again in the cover story "A Terrible Beauty."
While most mainstream media coverage of doggy matters remains firmly in the realm of fluff and fatuousity, the horse has left the barn. Even the shallowest treatment of show dogs and "The Fancy" now typically includes some mention of the evils of rewarding only for beauty, inbreeding, ignoring health and temperament. Sure the journalettes have no idea what they are talking about, and get it mostly wrong, but there is some obligatory embedded backlash nevertheless. The reading public is reminded that AKC papers "are best used to housebreak the puppy" at regular intervals.
The popular perception that purebred dogs are inbred (largely true) and that mixed breed dogs are healthier (also on average true) has fueled the market for gormlessly crossbred "designer dogs." While consumers misunderstand the precise nature of the problem, and have definitely fallen for a marketing scam with the "solution," they are to some extent on the right track.
4. Gen X, Y and Z
We don't need your stinkin' certificate to tell us we got a dog, dude!
Oddly enough it was Boomers -- yeah, you're all revolutionaries, sure you are -- who obediently sent in the check for their pets' papers in unprecedented numbers.
That swan dive starting in '92? Right around the time my generation started settling down and getting their own dogs. (Yes, I am 44 years old. That is Generation X. Seriously. Few tats, no piercings. Lotta Gulf War veterans. Look it up.)
3. People Like Me, You, and This Here Lamppost
I used to encourage my clients to send in their dogs' registrations, just in case they might want to go into the obedience ring one day.
I haven't done that in years.
Now, when a client asks, I discourage them from sending in the money. The boys on Madison Avenue don't need your fifteen dollars. Spend it on a nice leash. If they want to know about the pedigree, their breeder should have already provided it. If the breeder won't give a pedigree, that's about all we need to know about that breeder.
I talk about the shortcomings of the ACK -- including a lot of the ones listed here -- to all sorts of people, not just dog hobbyists who seek out a blog like this.
It boils down to advancing the idea that the AKC offers no value for money spent, and is actually bad for dogs.
Viruses spread. Most of you regular readers have spread this one.
2. The Dog Wars
Once upon a time, the gentlemen of independent means from the Westminster KC who actually call the shots at Madison Avenue HQ had some pretty strict criteria for "recognizing" a breed.
A club of fanciers had to come hat-in-hand to the back door, present a studbook that established the unassailable "purity" of their breed, and sing a cool island song to melt their hot hearts, or whatever, in the hopes of being granted permission to send money to the AKC in exchange for a piece of paper that tells them what they already know -- and especially, being included in the honor of having someone who knows nothing about their dogs tell them which ones are wonderful and which are shite.
There were even a fair number of disappointed office seekers. My own breed was dismissed from the servant's entrance for being inadequately pure and insufficiently "standard," some time in the 1950's.
Whew! That was close!
This changed in the early 1990's. 1992, I think it was, when AKC announced that it would "recognize" the Australian shepherd.
Except, the Aussie owners' club had no interest in being so honored. It was doing just fine by itself, with a registry, pageant shows (there was their mistake -- a topic for another day), and open-to-all obedience and working trials.
But AKC was in an acquisitive mood. It cobbled together a little group of Aussie owners who wanted to enter the big pageants, declared them the official club, and to Hell with the studbook -- they'd just take your word for it on the pedigree.
Most of the Aussie people I knew at the time took a fatalistic view -- they didn't like it, but basically rolled over and peed themselves. "I guess I have to double-register, or else lose puppy sales. They're going to close the studbook." (Edit: I do not mean to imply that all Aussie owners went this way; I was just shocked and disappointed about the ones I knew at the time, who all did.)
And they were off.
Next in the sights was the border collie.
Their owners did not roll over and pee themselves.
They "lost," in that they could not prevent the ACK from appropriating the name "border collie" for their transvestite show dogs, nor from capturing the registrations of dogs from working breeding whose owners were addicted to the rush of kicking ass at agility and obedience trials.
But the thing about a little guy who gets beaten by a bully -- all he really has to do is give the thug a bloody nose, and he's won. Better yet if a whole crowd of people watches the fight. It not only clearly reveals the bully for what he is, it plants the seeds of resistance in all of the spectators' minds.
The ABCA continues to register over 20,000 border collies a year -- more than ten times as many as the AKC. Most of those latter are "captured" agility and obedience dogs, and many of those are dual-registered.
The AKC's "standard" version of the "border collie" is widely referred to as the "Barbie collie," and recognized for the pale imitation that it is.
Nowadays, when the AKC announces that it is fixing to "recognize" a working breed, it is universally (and accurately) assumed that this is a hostile acquisitive action fronted by a tiny hollow shell group of wannabes who do not work their dogs.
The involuntary quality of recent annexation is even true of companion breeds, such as the Coton de Tulear, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and Leonberger.
The boards of "rare breed" clubs no longer present themselves at the service entrance and tug their forelocks while handing over the sacred studbook for scrutiny. Yet AKC keeps trying to make up for lost registration revenues from the Labrador and fox terrier columns by grabbing up rare breeds and declaring them "recognized."
It leaves a foul taste in the mouths of even the most die-hard pageant fanciers. Some object only to the untrustworthy pedigrees and opportunities for fraud. But most see how shabbily their Overlord treats those who don't get with its program.
1. Institutional Arrogance
The AKC cannot make up its mind whether it is a Most Anciente and Exclusive Order that has charged itself with governing a small, fanatical, and timorously obedient cadre of social-climbing dog-pageant addicts, or the divinely-ordained Government of Dogs in all of America.
One identity is primarily insular and snobbish. The other is primarily totalitarian and expansionist. They commingle gracelessly into something resembling a Stalinist Switzerland.
Virtually every disastrous decision the organization has made traces back to one of these two identities, or to the grating disharmony between them. But both identities are grounded in over a century that fanciers spent cultivating institutional arrogance -- starting in the dark-wood-and-leather smoking rooms (No Girlz Alowd!) where men who needn't work for a living decided How It Was Going to Be over cigars and sherry.
Arrogance underlies the presumption that "just a registry" has the right to tell the owners of dogs of every breed which dogs are worthy and which impermissible, whom they may breed to, from where they may import an animal.
It defines the conceit that what is important, exciting, and worthy about a dog of any breed is what can be seen in a few seconds by a man in a penguin suit or a matron in sequins who has never owned a dog of that breed, never worked one, never seen one work.
It is indispensable in maintaining the unsupportable faith that purebred dogs are exempt from the principles of genetics that apply to all living beings, and that the answer to the disaster of the closed-registry systematic inbreeding "experiment" is more of the same purge-and-purify insanity.
It drives the see-want-take impulse behind almost twenty years of hostile takeovers of breeds and the imperious treatment of the unconsenting human beings who own the actual dogs and the ephemeral creature that is "the breed."
It governs the institution's imperious dealings with its core constituents as embodied in its own delegates -- and even the previous presumption that their puppymiller gravy train would roll over and keep sending the munneyz when the paper-peddlers no longer winked at the wholesale fraud and unconscionable animal abuse that has paid for so many silver cups and Landseers.
It underlies the transparently grabby attempt to take credit for the achievements of working dogs. ("To qualify, the purebred dog must be AKC registered or an AKC recognized breed ...")
If the AKC wasn't fueled, steered, and simultaneously blinded by its own stupefying arrogance, not only would it avoid the consequences of its own oblivious decisions, it would be much less susceptible to the loss of respect and revenue that has been driven by cultural evolution.
* Total about 70,000 young pups in 2006. No hard figures given for prior years. So no way of knowing a baseline (say, 1992) figure for puppy imports. Some of these pups -- I think a lot -- are English and French bulldogs bred in Russia or other Eastern European countries. That's a new phenomenon; most of these pups aren't going to be AKC registered. Some will be German shepherds and other working-breed dogs born in Germany and imported by private American buyers or pretty much legitimate brokers. Many of those will be registered with the AKC -- probably many more than are native-born GSDs for the neighborhood pet market. That import market has been around for a long time. Some are dogs bred by fanciers or working breeders in Canada and Mexico, sold to private pet and show and working buyers in the US -- again, a well-established practice along those porous borders. Just as likely to be AKC registered as a comparable native-born pup. Some are like this guy. Definitely registered.
I don't think there's any damned way that 70,000 imported pups, many of which ultimately are registered with the AKC (which presumably knows the exact number), and which may or may not represent an increase in imports, account for much of the > half a million fewer dogs registered in 2008 v. 1992.