There’s a popular recent Subaru commercial that opens with a family of dogs driving down a suburban street. Dad, a golden retriever, pulls up to a stop sign; mom, a labrador, is in the passenger seat. A white poodle crosses the street in front of the car. Dad ogles. Mom growls. Roll tagline.
The commercial works beautifully because it requires no dialogue or voiceover at all, and that’s because we already know these dogs so well. Labradors and golden retrievers are all-American everydogs. Poodles, on the other hand, are fickle temptresses. Take this surprisingly dark Bridgestone ad in which a poodle cheats on her labrador boyfriend with a bulldog. The vain Georgette in the 1988 animated Disney film Oliver & Company typifies the trope:
How did a hunting dog become the go-to signifier of canine sexiness? Historian Katherine Grier, the author of the book Pets in America: A History, says that by the 1920 and 1930s, the burgeoning dog-grooming industry brought elaborately ornamental cuts for poodles into vogue. These cuts made both standard and miniature varieties appear high-maintenance and feminine. Betty Boop was originally drawn as part French poodle, singing at a nightclub and entrancing the canine protagonist of the 1930 short “Dizzy Dishes”; her long ears later became hoop earrings when she morphed into the human sex-kitten we know today. Around this time, an illustrator known as Tom Gay drew a popular series of postcards depicting shapely human female legs paired with dogs, like this one in which a boyish puppy admires a black miniature poodle with a bow in her hair.
Sexy ladies and elaborately styled poodles still just seem to go together:
In the post-war era, poodles became associated with “sexbomb women,” Grier says, and there was a fad for dressing up the dogs in elaborate dog clothes and collars. (One trendy brand of rhinestoned collars was called “Poodletown.”) By the early 1950s, small dogs including miniature poodles were seen as fashion accessories, toted around by actresses including Joan Collins, photographed by Slim Aarons lounging in bed with a cotton-candy-colored miniature poodle. The breed’s reputation is clear from midcentury advertising, too. A 1963 ad for dog food depicts a poodle with its nose high in the air, with text promising to “satisfy the fussiest appetites in your kennel.” Their reputation had been cemented as a dog to be dyed, styled, and bejeweled—an accessory for the frivolous.
The disconnect between the breed’s history as a hunting dog and its contemporary reputation can sometimes lead to unintentional hilarity. During the 2004 presidential election, the NRA teased John Kerry with an ad depicting Kerry as a white poodle with a bow in its fur. “That dog don’t hunt,” the caption read. Poodles are feminine and French, you see, not butch and American.
Today, Grier says, poodles are not as popular as they once were. They’ve been supplanted in feminine trendiness by Lhasa Apsos and Shih Tzus, although they’re still a popular component in “designer dog” mixes likes cockapoos and labradoodles. But knowing poodles, they’re probably just playing hard to get.