Pandemic Objects: Dogs



November 18, 2020

Take a stroll around your local park and you will no doubt be greeted by more than a few pandemic puppies. Dog ownership has soared during the past 8 months, with google searches for ‘buy a puppy’ increasing by 166% as people rushed to pick up a canine companion to help them get through lockdown.

This trend is unsurprising – the benefits of dog ownership have been well documented, with several studies indicating that it can lower anxiety, reduce feelings of isolation and help us to manage stress. With so many of us now working from home, thousands of people have seized the opportunity to welcome a dog into their home.

This year’s surge in sales has led to a shortage in the supply of puppies, particularly of the most Instagrammable and sought-after breeds such as Dachshunds, Chow Chows, Bulldogs and Pugs – some of which have seen price hikes of up to 89% since lockdown began. This rise in demand has also resulted in an increase in criminality, with unscrupulous breeding, scams, puppy smuggling and dog thefts all on the up. Although many shelters have also reported an increase in adoptions and fostering, the proliferation of pedigree and designer puppy sales indicates that many new owners want a dog which offers more than just companionship or an excuse to get out on a daily walk. We want our pets to look a certain way too.

Long before Paris Hilton popularised the handbag chihuahua with her pocket-sized pal Tinkerbell (RIP), patterns in dog ownership have been grounded in fashion trends, a propensity towards specific physical characteristics and the associations that certain breeds have with social status. Indeed we have the Victorians to thank for pioneering and amplifying these tendencies, and for the array of dog breeds we have today.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the development of what was then called ‘dog fancying’, taking ideas of ancestry and bloodline first used to grade horses and applying them to the breeding and showing of dogs. This focus on purity and pedigree appealed to middle-class town dwellers who were fixated with the kind of status and symbolism found in horse ownership but had no livestock through which they could indicate their social standing or wealth. Dog shows, the first of which was held in 1859, provided an opportunity for owners to gain prestige, with the quality of the dog seen as reflecting the status and good taste of its owner.

These shows drove the creation of many of the dog breeds we know today, providing categories and archetypes for dogs to be judged against. By the end of the nineteenth century, ‘doggy people’ as they were known, had developed an intricate set of rules which were designed to enforce distinctions and standards between types of dogs – often entirely arbitrarily. This standardisation revolutionised the way people thought about varieties of dogs and marked the first time that they were bred not for their function (working dogs, hunting dogs) but for their appearance (flat face, big eyes). Dogs were now bred either for uniformity, to change features according to popular taste or even to create new breeds entirely.

There was undoubtably a market for these new fashionable dogs, with celebrity and royal influence making certain breeds popular middle-class pets. Queen Victoria is credited with popularising the collie, a former working dog which saw a surge in prominence as a pet thanks to her fondness for the breed.

While most of us are no longer attempting to manoeuvre our dogs around a show ring, the desire to showcase has not waned. Today, our dogs fulfil the same image-making role when we feature them prominently on our Instagram accounts, a well-filtered digital version of Victorian-era parading which allows us to proudly present our dogs (and therefore ourselves) to be admired. This image-making intent has become further heightened during lockdown, as our screens and social media accounts have become the sole outlet through which the public world sees us. The medium may have changed, but the understanding that our dogs reflect our status and style has persisted through the 21st century.

Further Reading:

‘The Covid-19 puppy boom – one in four admit impulse buying a pandemic puppy’, The Kennel Club, 17 August 2020.

‘’Paris Hilton syndrome’ strikes California animal shelters’, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, 10 December 2009.

‘Boom in puppy sales during pandemic raises concerns that many could be abandoned afterwards’, Tom Bawden, iNews, 17 August 2020.

Dog breeds are mere Victorian confections, neither pure nor ancient’, Michael Worboys, edited by Sam Dresser, Aeon Magazine, 2019.

‘The invention of the basset hound: breed, blood and the late Victorian dog fancy, 1865–1900’, Michael Worboys and Neil Pemberton, European Review of History, Vol 22, 2015.

‘Pride and Pedigree: The Evolution of the Victorian Dog Fancy’, Harriet Ritvo, Victorian Studies, Vol 29 No 2, 1986.

Related Objects from the Collection:

Queen Victoria (chromolithograph), William Newzam Prior Nicholson, Britain, 1899 (E.291-1937)

Queen Victoria (chromolithograph), William Newzam Prior Nicholson, Britain, 1899 (E.291-1937)

‘Isabella Grace, Clementina and Elphinstone Agnes Maude on terrace, 5 Princes Gardens’ (Photograph), Clementina Viscountess Hawarden, ca 1863-64 (V&A: 302-1947)

‘Isabella Grace, Clementina and Elphinstone Agnes Maude on terrace, 5 Princes Gardens’ (Photograph), Clementina Viscountess Hawarden, ca 1863-64 (V&A: 302-1947)

‘The Running Spaniel’ (mechanical dog toy), Louis Marx & Co Lt, USA, 1938 (MISC.18&A-1978)

‘The Running Spaniel’ (mechanical dog toy), Louis Marx & Co Lt, USA, 1938 (MISC.18&A-1978)

 Girl sitting on the sand next to a black dog (photographic postcard), Arthur Herbert Remington, UK, 1920-39 (B.291-2010)

 Girl sitting on the sand next to a black dog (photographic postcard), Arthur Herbert Remington, UK, 1920-39 (B.291-2010)

‘A Dog Boy’ (One of eleven paintings of occupations), Varanasi (Benares), India, ca. 1870 (4675:2/(IS))

‘A Dog Boy’ (One of eleven paintings of occupations), Varanasi (Benares), India, ca. 1870 (4675:2/(IS))
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