MUTTerings: Tiny Dogs and Nirvana

I blame Kurt Cobain for single-handedly creating an environment where people want to size down perfectly good breeds and make them fit into a teacup.

I recently went to the grand opening launch party for a cool new grooming spa, NYC Dog Cachet. The party benefitted the Mayor’s Alliance for Animals, a coalition of over 150 New York dog rescue groups working to help promote adoption of shelter pets. I love dog events like this because they are the perfect place to share ideas and meet dog owners with the same passions and ideals.

Dog events are also a great place for your dog to socialize. I brought Pearl, of course, who gets along with most dogs, except for the little, itty-bitty ones – I have no idea why, but really teeny dogs bring out the wolf in her. It occurred to me that she might think that they are chewy toys.

At this recent event, Pearl got into a little tussle with a teeny dog whose breed confounded me. I squinted at this little tyke, and I couldn’t figure out whether he was a Yorkie with weird coloring or some kind of mix. I’m good at identifying dog breeds, even the rare ones. But this one stumped me.

“What kind of dog is that?” I asked the owner.

“He’s a Teacup Schnauzer,” she said.

A teacup what? As a Schnauzer aficionado, I had to investigate further and asked if I could pick up her dog. I studied him. Yes, he was indeed a Schnauzer, but he was maybe five pounds, if that. He was one of the cutest things I’d ever seen, but I felt like I had landed on another planet.

After cuddling the dog and threatening to steal him (as I do with all adorable doggies), I thought about this teacup pup. What was so wrong with Schnauzers that they had to be boiled down like that? Did it make them better somehow? Is it still a Schnauzer if it’s that much smaller than the breed standard? Or is it something else?

The Miniature Schnauzer was bred down from the Standard Schnauzer to be a working breed on farms that could get into small spaces to kill vermin. So what does the Teacup Schnauzer do? Hunt teacups?

I understand the need for small dogs. People living in apartments typically opt for an apartment-sized dog. But small dogs already exist. Chihuahuas, Toy Poodles, Maltese, Min Pins, Havanese, Yorkies . . . why do we have to take big dogs and miniaturize them when it has already been done for us? And Miniature Schnauzers are an average of 14 to 20 pounds – is that so large that we need micro-minis? 

This trend has found its way to Australian Shepherds in the past few years. My jaw dropped the first time I saw a Miniature Australian Shepherd. Why would anyone take a herding dog and size it down for city living? Sure, you can have an Aussie in an apartment if you understand its particular needs and are willing to go the extra mile to meet them. Having a “Mini Aussie” doesn’t mean that it’s now an apartment dog and no longer wants to run and herd sheep. No offense to Mini Aussie owners, but I’ve yet to meet one that wasn’t abnormally shy. Is that part of the Mini Aussie breed? It isn’t a part of the regular-sized Aussie breed (though the breed standard does say that the dog might be reserved in initial meetings).

When I was growing up (not that long ago), no one carried around dogs in bags. There were little dogs, sure, but dogs were dogs, not accessories. So where did this miniaturizing trend come from? It would be easy to blame Paris Hilton and other dog-bag toting starlets for the “little dog phenomenon,” but I think that it goes deeper than that.

According to the American Kennel Club, the popularity of small dogs (under 20 lbs) has steadily risen over the past decade. These include:

• French Bulldogs: 467% increase
• Cavalier King Charles Spaniels: 209% increase
• Brussels Griffon: 73% increase
• Norwich Terriers: 39%
• Papillons: 37% increase

This year, the Beagle overtook the Yorkie for a spot in the top five AKC registered dog breeds. And guess what? Breeders are creating Pocket Beagles and Teacup Beagles. I wish I was making this up. Quick, someone develop a Teacup Fox! These Teacup Beagles are going to need something to hunt.

When did people start clamoring for tiny dogs? I’d put the beginning of this trend in the early 1990s, when dog boutiques started springing up – they were a novelty, but they were the pioneers. I worked on the floor in pet retail from 1988 to 1994, so I remember the very first dog shirts we received in the store and how funny we thought they were – and they weren’t for Golden Retrievers. These dog clothes were for the tiny tykes.

This trend for small breeds ramped up through the 90s and peaked in the mid 2000s with existing breeds, then grew and mutated into a public clamoring for teacup versions of big dogs. Tiny versions of big dogs have been around since the late 1960s (as with the Aussie Shepherds), but they didn’t come into vogue until a few years ago.

What else happened in the early 1990s? Let’s see . . . George H. W. Bush was in office as president, and he had a Springer Spaniel, Mille. She wasn’t tiny. Spuds MacKenzie, a Bull Terrier, sold beer on TV commercials. He wasn’t tiny. So who’s to blame? Two words: Grunge rock. (The Miniature Bull Terrier now has AKC acceptance, I need to note.)

Before grunge and the Seattle sound, the popular music came from LA-based bands wearing eyeliner and singing about parties and nothin’ but a good time. Glam rock was about living large, about big, bigger, biggest – and big dogs were the “in” thing. Akitas were hot during this time, and Rottweilers, Dobermans, and German Shepherds were the dogs du jour.

But then Nirvana hit in 1991. Overnight, the “big” lifestyle crashed people who had “stuff” were suspect. You were cool if you had ability to pack up and move in 30 seconds with everything you owned in the world. How could you do that with an Akita? AKC Registrations of purebred dogs significantly declined since 1992 (1,528,392 dogs in 1992; 812,452 in 2007), though toy breeds rose in registrations by 16 percent from 1995 to 1998. Coincidence?

Grunge told us to question big anything, from big corporations to big government. That thinking translated into everything else we did from then on, from flannel shirts to tiny dogs. But the “little life” backfired, because once Paris Hilton got her hands on a little dog and dressed it in pink chiffon and diamonds, the grunge philosophy was smashed into a million pink pieces. Now we wanted little dogs as status symbols.

In essence, I blame Kurt Cobain for single-handedly creating an environment where people want to size down perfectly good breeds and make them fit into a teacup.

Pause for effect.

Ok, I really don’t know where this trend came from. People always seem to want to fix what’s not broken. Dogs don’t exist to be convenient for us. If a dog breed is too big for your apartment or home, look into a different breed. Sizing down perfectly good dog breeds is just . . . weird. And it tends not to be good for the dogs, either, because they often have congenital defects from being bred from the runts of the litter.

And guess what? I’m going to beat the adoption drum again (surprise, surprise). There are thousands of great little dogs put to death every year for lack of a home. Shelter dogs cost between $30 and $80, depending on where you live. Teacup dogs cost between $800 and $3,000 or more. I know I’m not making any friends in the teacup camp right now. It’s not that I don’t think that these dogs are adorable. If you gave me a Teacup Poodle right now I’d hug it and squeeze it and love it and keep it and call it George. But I’m not going to pay $3,000 for a dog when my local shelter has amazing purebreds and mutts for barely a fraction of that – and I can save a life too. Drat you, Kurt Cobain!

Nope, I’ll take my Miniature Schnauzers just as they are. Supersized.

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