What caused this?
I would suggest two things, one related to the rise of the internet, but the other ongoing poor health and performance quality of American Kennel Club dogs. It's a bit like a two-part epoxy: you needed both parts for registration collapse to occur this fast.
The poor health and work performance of AKC dogs was an observed phenomenon almost from the beginning, but it alone was not enough.
Yes, genetic disease increased with time as closed registries resulted in more inbreeding and disease, and as working dog pretenders saluted more and more exaggeration and spent less and less time in the field.
But the true catalyst for collapse was the rise of the internet, and the release of massive amounts of information that had previously been difficult for the lay public to access.
With the development of the internet, web sites like this one could tell the true history of dogs, document the decline in health and functionality of pedigree dogs, and rebut the stream of nonsense promulgated by pump-and-dump show dog breeders.
Suddenly, The Great Dog Scam was exposed.
Not only were most pedigree dogs more expensive, but they were, on average, less healthy than pound dogs.
Storied breed histories were revealed as dog dealer fiction and breed "standards" were revealed to be changeable show dog nonsense too often antithetical to health and work.
The fact that this information was not widely known prior to the 1990s comes as a shock to those who have only entered the world of dogs within the last 25 years.
It's worth remembering what the world of information looked like back in 1996.
In 1996 the internet was just starting to gain traction. In January of that year, there were only 100,000 websites in the world as compared to the more than 160 million that existed by 2008.
In 1996 the web browser of choice was Netscape Navigator, followed by Microsoft Internet Explorer as a distant second. Most internet connections were dial-up on telephone lines, with slow speeds and no video.
In 1996, Google and Youtube did not exist, and the search engine of choice was something called "Altavista" which itself had only been created in 1995.
The Dog Show Die Hards are Dying Out
While the number of annual AKC registrations has plummeted, the number of dog shows has actually increased.
What this means is that the hardcore dog show people are still there, but are likely dying out faster than they are being replaced.
Though the AKC adds new breeds and new shows every year, the actual number of dogs at each show has been in rapid decline. Since dog show set-up costs are not closely tied to entry volume, more and more dog shows are being subsidized by ever-increasing amounts of money from breed club accounts, or else they are going out of business altogether.
All of this has occurred even as the number of dogs in the U.S. has risen from an estimated 68 million in 2000, to 83.3 million in 2014.
Can you think of any other parallel collapse? I cannot.
And here's the thing: it's not going to turn around so long as the AKC continues to be a show case for disease, deformity, and dysfunction, and a wading pool for misinformation, fiction, and outright lies.
Can the AKC reinvent itself with healthy dogs that function at their jobs?
In order to do so, they would have to de-list dozens of wrecked breeds entirely, lump up a score of others within a broader "type," begin registering dogs as individuals instead of as litters, and impose health and work tests.
Is that likely to happen? It is not, for several reasons.
The first is that the hierarchy of the AKC is blinded by their own life choices. As The Little Prince says in the Saint-Exupéry book of the same name, it is the time wasted on the rose that made the rose so special.
For a person age 50, 60, 70, or 80-years old to admit that the decades they have spent on dogs has resulted in dogs less healthy and less capable is no small thing; it is to admit that the voyage of their life has been wrecked by their own contribution.
The second matter is that dogs are a business. Kennels full of "pure bred" dogs have a putative value because of their "purity" and conformation to a "standard" (however silly and harmful). That means that any changes to registrations and standards will be seen as a kind of financial "taking." Though it would be entirely legal for the AKC to engage in wholesale change (it is a private organization, after all, and not the government), it would face litigation on the issue. Even though the litigation would fail, the specter of lawyers is always a good excuse to do nothing.
And so nothing substantive will be done, and the AKC will continue to shrink and swirl down the bowl, becoming less important in the world of dogs.
In the end the organization will be little more than a marketing company for canine health insurance, veterinary referrals, and perhaps a few books and plush toys.
The AKC? Oh right. I think they went out of existence at about the time the i-Phone 14 came out.