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Behind the making and marketing of ‘trendy’ dog breeds

With small bodies and cute features, Pomeranians, bichons frises lead pet dog preferences, but what happens if they fall out of favor?

May 15, 2024 - 11:38 By Song Seung-hyun

Clockwise from top left: A mini Bichon Frise, a coton de Tulear, a shih tzu and a cocker spaniel (The Korea Herald, Getty Images, Song Seung-hyun/The Korea Herald, screenshot from Hyponic's Facebook page)

Park Ji-won, 34, often hears comments like "It's refreshing to see a shih tzu. They seem so rare these days," while walking her 5-year-old dog.

The recurring remarks prompted her to ponder a question: "During my elementary school years, shih tzus were everywhere. Where have all the shih tzus gone?" she said. "Even when I encounter them occasionally, they're usually very old."

Park's observation reflects a shift in pet preferences in South Korea over the last few decades.

In the early 2000s, shih tzus were among the most popular breeds here, along with Yorkshire terriers, cocker spaniels, and schnauzers. Since then, trends have shifted, with breeds like beagles, dachshunds, and Samoyeds each having their moments of rising and waning popularity.

As of 2024, the most popular breeds are Pomeranians, bichons frises, coton de Tulears, and Maltipoos.

How trendy dogs are made

The popularity of certain dog breeds in South Korea is often triggered by media exposure.

In 2002, for instance, the SBS television show "TV Animal Farm" featured a cocker spaniel named Woongja, which increased the popularity of the breed.

Shih Tzus experienced a surge in popularity around the same time after former television personality Ko Young-wook showcased his mother's 10 shih tzus on the program.

Animal advocacy group Korea Animal Rights Advocates says that media attention on a particular breed is further amplified by pet shops and puppy mills.

“To understand the origins of these trends, one has to know how dog auctions take place in Korea,” said Jeon Jin-kyung, head of KARA.

At these auctions, puppy mill owners and pet shop owners share a mutual interest in current or future trends, where certain breeds with desirable facial features have the potential to be sold at high retail prices.

"They may even engage in price-fixing," Jeon claimed, adding that the tactic is used to artificially inflate the price of a specific breed at auction, thus creating the illusion of high demand and manipulating dog breed trends.

These trendy dogs then reach pet shops.

The shop owners may recommend customers purchase trendy dog breeds that have appeared in the media, and customers often aren't presented with many other options.

Kim, 29, who visited a pet shop in Seoul last August, received a breed recommendation from a local pet shop.

As she entered the shop, she was initially recommended a Maltipoo, a small mixed-breed poodle.

The shop owner said Maltipoos are popular because they are manageable in size, easygoing, and shed little fur, making them a perfect fit for apartment living.

Kim explained that she couldn't help but notice the abundance of similar-looking small white dogs in the shop.

As she was taking some time to look around, the owner then suggested a mini bichon frise, assuring it shared the Maltipoo's desirable traits.

“She also told me that it is the breed that singer Kang Min-kyung owns,” she said.

Ultimately, swayed by the trend and the owner's recommendation, Kim decided to adopt the mini bichon frise.

In South Korea, buying dogs at pet shops is commonplace.

A 2023 survey conducted by animal welfare researcher Aware on 2,000 Koreans aged 20 to 69 found that, when asked about their adoption method, 46.7 percent reported that they acquired their dogs through acquaintances, while pet shops came in second, accounting for 14.5 percent.

A shih tzu and her pups are locked in a cage at a puppy mill in Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province, in this 2019 photo. (The Korea Herald)

Are fads creating more abandoned dogs?

Pet industry insiders warn that the sale of trendy dog breeds without careful consideration, coupled with the excessive breeding of popular dogs by puppy mills, could lead to a surge in abandoned animals once the trend subsides.

Data from the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency's 2018 research paints a troubling picture.

While the number of registered dogs reached 140,000 in 2017, a staggering 90,000 dogs, roughly 64 percent of those registered figures, were abandoned and rescued in the same year.

The rise of abandoned trending breeds is particularly worrisome. In 2010, only 399 Pomeranians were listed as abandoned. By 2018, after the breed's popularity soared, that number jumped to 2,217. Similarly, abandoned bichons frises increased from zero in 2010 to 348 in 2018.

Jeon argues that this trend-driven market also discourages people from adopting abandoned dogs, many of whom desperately need families.

"While trendy dogs are being purchased, many abandoned dogs are being euthanized due to a lack of adoption,” Jeon said.

She further noted that this market trend incentivizes breeders to produce ever-smaller dogs, which can lead to health problems in the dogs themselves.

"Breeders prioritize small, attractive dogs that sell quickly," Jeon explained, "often neglecting to screen for potential genetic diseases."