The American Kennel Club (AKC) categorizes and tallies the totals of more than 150 registered purebred breeds ranging in size from the 34-inch tall Great Dane to the 6-pound Affenpinscher. Americans purchase nearly 1 million purebred dogs each year. Americans’ taste in dogs has changed dramatically over time.
As reported on Vox by Zachary Crockett in a story titled “America’s top dog: how the most popular breeds have changed over time,” he shows how the breed buying habits of American dog owners have changed over the past 80 years. The information was culled from a dataset of AKC registrations dating back to 1935 when the most popular dog was the Boston terrier. During the 18-year period from 1936 to 1953, the cocker spaniel reigned as the most popular dog followed by the beagle for six years. Then for the 23 years from 1960 to 1982 the poodle dominated the top of the list after which the cocker spaniel regained the throne. For the past 25 years however, dating back to 1991, the Labrador retriever holds the number one position. Today the great cocker spaniel ranks only 31st on the list.
Of the top five dogs in 1934, only the beagle still remains in the top five today. Americans’ taste in dog breeds has completely changed over the past 80 years, and although smaller dogs like the Chihuahua were in vogue for many years, today medium to large breeds dominate the list. What explains these trends and why do certain dogs become popular in the first place?
Researcher Stefano Ghirlanda posited in a 2014 study titled “Dog Movie Stars and Dog Breed Popularity: A Case Study in Media Influence on Choice” that dog owner breed preferences are largely influenced by pop culture and movies that star dogs. The popularity of the “Lassie” movie series from 1943 to 1951 correlates strongly with the rise in collie ownership in 1944. The rise in popularity of the Labrador and golden retriever in the 1990’s correlates with the 1993 movie “Homeward Bound” and the movie “Air Bud” in 1997. Although Dalmatians did not rank in the top five breeds on the AKC list following the release and re-release of “101 Dalmatians” in 1961 and 1996, ownership in the breed did experience a boost each time.
A more expansive theory exists relative to the popularity of certain breeds as detailed by psychology professor Hal Herzog in a 2004 paper for the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. Herzog contends a cultural drift effect exists in which dog owners tend to mimic the choices of others whether that is neighbors, friends or celebrities. Herzog’s analysis found that “breeds enjoy heydays of approximately 25 years… [which] usually allows for two to three generations of dogs, as the breed transforms from novel to passé.” If this is true, then the current number one breed, the Labrador, is nearing the end of its reign as it has held the number one spot for the past 25 years. AKC Vice President Gina DiNardo however, does not believe that will happen any time in the near future. Currently the Lab is the most popular breed in not only the United States, but in the United Kingdom and Australia as well.
What makes the Labrador retriever so popular? The Labrador retriever is a very intelligent breed that is easy to train with a very friendly disposition towards adults, children and other dogs that is very eager to please its owners. The Lab is also very versatile both physically and psychologically. The physical versatility of the Lab is evident in their ability to adapt to a wide variety of environments including the city and country. Labs are also very good with water. Their mental attributes are noticeable by the fact that even inexperienced dog owners can easily command the Lab. The best examples of the Labs mental acuity however, are their use as service dogs. It will be interesting to see if in 2017 the Labrador retriever overtakes the AKC record holder for the most years at the top (26), the cocker spaniel.