It’s a bitterly cold December morning as Pascal Viot (see below) takes his poodle Clovis for a walk.
Ten-year-old Clovis pulls enthusiastically on the lead as his master heads down Boulevard Raspail in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.
Passing tourists turn and smile, and one woman stops to pat the dog and declare: “He’s magnificent. Such dignity!”
“This sort of thing happens every single time I take him out,” says 75-year-old Mr Viot, who owns a restaurant called the Hippocampus on the same boulevard.
One reason Clovis attracts so much attention is that there are so few of his kind left in Paris, a city once awash with prancing poodles led by bourgeois ladies in fur coats and high heels.
Pascal Viot says his poodle Clovis is 'highly intelligent and good-natured'
One long-time American resident of the French capital, Michael Balter, recalls that when he arrived there in the 1980s, there were poodles everywhere, in rich and poorer districts alike.
“The person on the other end of the leash was more often than not an elderly lady (sounds sexist but it was true) putting on bourgeois airs and acting like a stereotypical uptight French madame of a couple of generations back,” he said.
“These ladies were also mostly responsible for the amazing amount of dog shit that used to grace the sidewalks of La Ville Lumière,” said Balter.
But today poodles, the world’s best-known French dog breed that were initially used for hunting ducks, have fallen massively out of favour in their native land.
France’s current favourite dog is the Belgian Shepherd, a close cousin of the German Shepherd, which is the country’s second most favoured dog, according to figures from the Société Centrale Canine (SCC) the equivalent of the Kennel Club in Britain or the United States.
The poodle doesn’t even figure in the top twenty most popular dogs. And poodle cross breeds, such as the Cockapoo (poodle mixed with Cocker Spaniel), or the Labradoodle (poodle mixed with Labrador), are not common in France.
Opera star Maria Callas with her pet poodles in a Paris airport in 1966. Photo: AFP
The SCC only has statistics for pedigree dogs and was unable to say how many impure poodles there might be among the estimated 7.3 million mutts in France (Labradors are anecdotally said to be the most popular non-pedigree dogs.)
But its stats on pedigree poodles – which are called “caniches” in French and officially come in four different sizes – are sobering for admirers of the breed that was much loved in royal courts long before it fell into the hands of the bourgeoisie.
In 2016, a mere 1,294 poodle births were registered with the SCC, compared to 11,267 Belgian Shepherd births.
So why have they fallen out of favour in France, the country that produced the breed (although there are some dissenters, including the UK Kennel Club, who say it has its origin in Germany where it was known as the Pudelhund)?
The answer may simply be that poodles were the victims of bad press.
The owner of Clovis, Mr Viot, describes his dog as “docile, intelligent, good-natured and very loyal.”
That fits in with the breed’s description in Wikipedia, which we must assume is unbiased and not in hock to any pro- or anti-poodle lobby. It says they are a “highly intelligent, energetic, and sociable breed.”
They are listed as the second smartest breed in the world – the Border Collie took the top place – in a ranking established by Stanley Coren, a professor of canine psychology at the University of British Columbia.
And they are still enormously popular abroad.
But some French poodle owners The Local talked to said that, during the breed’s peak in popularity towards the end of the last century, greedy and unscrupulous breeders overproduced and flooded the market with dogs of lesser quality, given to biting, barking, and fits of bad temper.
Christophe Blanchard, a sociologist at Paris XIII university, has written a book on the French and their their dogs, “Les maîtres expliqués à leurs chiens. Essai de sociologie canine” (Masters explained to their dogs. An essay in canine sociology.)
He says that every era his its trendy dog but that today the poodle “is not at all chic.”
“It’s social image immediately makes one think of old people,” he said, noting that trendy women in Paris these days go for chihuahuas or bulldogs.
The use of the word poodle as an insult – think of Tony Blair accused of being George Bush’s poodle – does not help the overall image. The French word “caniche” can also be used in this context.
Poodles in popular culture are usually depicted as spoiled, snobby, and vain, and their owners get tarred with the same fussy and frivolous brush.
Toby Rose, who organises the annual Palm Dog awards for the best on-screen mutts at the Cannes Film Festival, agreed that the “cutely coiffed poodle is a symbol of outmoded femininity.”
“Sadly the beautifully groomed poodle is seen as harking back to a more demure era and thus a fashion fail,” he said.
The Local contacted the Club du Caniche de France, the national poodle club, to see if they could shed light on the question of why the breed has fallen from grace.
Its president, whose telephone manner fitted with the rather negative perceptions of poodle owners listed above, could merely agree that tastes in fashion had moved on and that the poodle was no longer de rigueur for French ladies who lunch.
Could it make a comeback?
Mr Blanchard, the canine sociologist, says that is unlikely any time soon unless poodles were the heroes of a blockbuster film like 101 Dalmations (which features a supercilious poodle with an equally snooty mistress) that could thrust them back into the limelight.
It was a poodle called Bruno that won the Palm Dog award this year, but that triumph will do little to improve the public image of the breed.
The dog trips up his owner, played by Dustin Hoffman, and causes him serious head injuries.
And the owner, living up to the stereotypes of the poodle master, is both cantankerous and pretentious.