Each year, Americans purchase nearly 1 million purebred dogs, ranging from the 34-inch tall great dane to the 6-pound affenpinscher. These dogs are registered through the American Kennel Club (AKC), which categorizes and tallies up the totals of more than 150 breeds.
We obtained a dataset of these registrations going back 80 years — and what we found shows that Americans’ taste in dogs has dramatically changed over time.
The chart below depicts the top five most popular dog breeds (based on total number of AKC registrations) in each year since 1935.
Throughout the '30s, '40s, and early '50s, the cocker spaniel topped the list, trumping terriers, collies, and beagles. After a brief peak by the beagle from 1954 to 1959, the poodle ruled the top spot for more than two decades — and the German shepherd rose to prominence as runner-up.
In 1991, the Labrador retriever became the most popular dog — and for the past 25 years it has retained its throne. The cocker spaniel, once America’s top dog, ranks a mere 31st today.
"Cultural drift": why dog breeds become popular
Over 80 years, Americans’ taste in dog breeds has entirely changed. Only one dog in the top five in 1934 — the beagle — still remains in the top five today. For many years, smaller dogs were in vogue; today, medium to large dogs overwhelm the list.
So, what can explain these trends? Why do certain breeds become popular in the first place?
In a 2014 study, Dog Movie Stars and Dog Breed Popularity: A Case Study in Media Influence on Choice, researcher Stefano Ghirlanda posits that pop culture — particularly movies that star dogs — largely impacts dog owners’ breed preferences.
In the chart above, for instance, we see a rise in collies around 1944. This correlates with the popularity of the Lassie movie series (1943 to 1951), which starred a heroic, life-saving collie.
Likewise, Homeward Bound (1993), and Air Bud (1997) seem to coincide with the rise in popularity of Labrador and golden retrievers. Though not visible in the top five, Dalmatians experienced a boost following the release of 101 Dalmatians in 1961 and the rerelease in 1996.
But there is a broader hypothesis for the popularity of certain breeds.
In a 2004 paper for the Royal Society's Biology Letters, psychology professor Hal Herzog laid out what he called the "cultural drift" effect: Instead of studying up on various breeds, dog owners tend to mimic the choices of others — neighbors, friends, celebrities.
Herzog, through data analysis, also concluded 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."
This would suggest that the Labrador retriever is nearing the end of it’s reign (it has topped the list for exactly 25 years now). But Gina DiNardo, who currently serves as the vice president of the American Kennel Club, says that’s not going to happen any time soon.
Why is the Labrador retriever so immensely popular?
"America loves the Lab right now, and I don’t see any sign of that changing," DiNardo tells me over the phone. "It’s also the most popular breed in the UK and Australia — it’s worldwide — and by a lot."
DiNardo says the popularity of the Labrador is simple: It is an incredibly versatile breed that even inexperienced dog owners can command:
"Labs are easy to train and get along great with people and other dogs, are easy to please, and have a friendly disposition. They shed, but not an unbearable amount. They’re good with water. They’re also very versatile: People can live with them in a variety of settings — cities, country, apartments, houses."
These traits have helped the Labrador retriever top the AKC’s most popular dog breed list for the past 25 years — but historically, it is still not the most popular breed. Though the cocker spaniel has long since faded as America’s favorite dog, it still holds the record for most years at the top (26), thanks to a resurgence in the 1980s.
By next year, we could have a new top dog.