Gina Browning remembers when almost every other cage at the local SPCA facility contained a German shepherd or shepherd mix. Their image then, as aggressive and ferocious dogs, kept people walking warily around those cages.
"Over the last 20 years, the perception of them has completely changed," said Browning, public relations director for the SPCA Serving Erie County. "It has become that of a hero dog."
That's why Browning wasn't surprised to learn that the German shepherd, the regal tan-and-black pet known for their intelligence and loyalty, has leapt over the Labrador retriever to earn the title of most popular dog in Buffalo in 2011. That is according to the American Kennel Club.
"It makes sense," Browning said, citing the lack of German shepherds now brought to the SPCA. "The dog we don't see at the shelter is the most popular."
The Buffalo rankings, based on purebred registrations with the American Kennel Club from Buffalo city ZIP codes, fly somewhat in the face of the national list, topped again -- for the 21st straight year -- by the Labrador retriever.
Labs also took the top spot in Buffalo in 2010, before German shepherds knocked that breed off the perch.
Buffalo joins Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, Columbus and West Palm Beach as cities with German shepherds at number one.
"Some cities are starting their own trend," American Kennel Club spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said.
So why are German shepherds so popular in Buffalo?
No one has a definitive answer, other than that the American Kennel Club's numbers count only purebreds.
"I still think mixed-breed dog is the most popular in Buffalo," said Barbara S. Carr, executive director of the local SPCA.
But the rise of the German shepherd, here or anywhere, marks a gradual sea change in the attitude toward that breed in this nation.
"When I was a young kid, [German shepherds were] the pit bull of my era," Carr said. "Everybody was afraid of them."
That shift in perception may have something to do with our being more than 65 years removed from the end of World War II.
"There was always a German shepherd at the end of a leash of every SS officer," Carr said of media depictions of the Nazis.
Peterson, from the American Kennel Club, looked at the top of Buffalo's top-10 list, dominated by the German shepherd and the Labrador and golden retrievers. All are loyal dogs, looking for a to-do list each day from their masters.
"People in Buffalo like dogs with loyalty, dogs that have a strong work ethic," Peterson explained. "Buffalo breeds have the work ethic that reflects the city's population."
The Buffalo rankings were music to the ears of the German Shepherd Dog Club of Western New York.
"The shepherd is a great dog," said Bonita Lewis, of Akron, the club president. "I'm biased. I've been breeding them for almost 30 years. They're a great family dog."
But what does this say about Buffalo?
"I don't know what it says," Lewis replied. "Maybe we're just a very down-to-earth city."
A complete list of all breeds, along with data for Buffalo and other cities, is available at the kennel club's website: http://www.akc.org/reg/dogreg_stats.cfm.