Not too long ago, Labrador retrievers were considered a tad exotic. In the 1950s, the sporty mid-size breed was a suburban rarity, popular mainly among upper-crust Anglophiles who liked the idea of owning a dignified hunting dog. Today, however, Labs are the Levi's jeans of purebred dogs. They've topped the American Kennel Club's list of registered canines for 12 years straight. And not just topped, but dominated: The number of registered Labs is nearly three times the number of golden retrievers, the second most popular dog on the list.
So how did the affable, otter-tailed Lab become the nation's No. 1 purebred dog? Its ascent may have something to do with the supersizing of the American home. Prior to the Labrador's reign, the cocker spaniel held the AKC's top spot for eight years; before that, the poodle was No. 1 for a remarkable quarter-century. Labs, which can weigh more than 80 pounds and measure 25 inches from paw to shoulder, are Goliaths compared to these breeds. Even the standard poodle, which is bigger than the miniature or toy poodle and can be almost as tall as a Lab, usually weighs 15 to 20 pounds less. And Labs are an infamously rambunctious breed; they need more space to frolic and flourish than poodles or cocker spaniels.
Which is why the Labrador's increasing popularity may be tied to the advent of exurbs and McMansions. Since 1971, the average size of an American home has risen 55 percent, to 2,320 square feet. Families aren't having more children to fill up the extra space, so there's plenty of room for a Labrador to romp around. In Manhattan, meanwhile, where space is at a premium, tiny dachshunds are the most popular breed; the four-legged sausages are No. 6 on the AKC's nationwide list, with 40,770 registrants compared to 146,692 Labs.
The AKC's stats show that the large-dog trend started to gather steam in 1972, as breeds such as Labs, Doberman pinschers, and Rottweilers showed steady increases from year to year. The trend continued throughout the '90s; at some points in the decade, only one of the AKC's Toy breeds—a group that includes diminutive dogs such as the Shih Tzu and the Yorkshire terrier—cracked the list's annual top 10.
But the trend toward jumbo dogs doesn't quite explain why the Labrador retriever is far more popular than other big breeds. The simple answer is that dog owners are mimics: Instead of studying up on breeds that might meet their particular needs, they tend to copy the dog-buying habits of the people down the street.
Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University, refers to this phenomenon as "cultural drift," and he believes that parents choose baby names in a similarly imitative fashion. Last year, Herzog and two co-authors published a study of American dog-ownership trends in the Royal Society's Biology Letters: They concluded that breeds enjoy heydays of approximately 25 years. That time span usually allows for two to three generations of dogs, as the breed transforms from novel to passé. Herzog paid special attention to the rise and fall of the poodle, which at its zenith was even more popular than the Labrador is today: In 1967, there were approximately 250,000 poodles registered in the United States, up from a mere 6,000 in 1952. The number currently stands at 32,671.
It's still not clear how particular breeds start to gain ground. Herzog acknowledges that some of the ebb and flow can be driven by cultural artifacts or current events. Every time 101 Dalmatians is re-released, there's an attendant spike in Dalmatian registrations, even though the breed is very tough to train. In the 1980s, a series of Rottweiler attacks squelched that breed's popularity, after what had been a meteoric rise. But these effects are temporary and not terribly powerful; Paris Hilton's affection for her Chihuahua Tinkerbell, for example, has not yet helped—or harmed—the Mexican pooch's standing.
Once a breed gains a foothold, several factors can spur it on. It helps when the dog in question has a lovely temperament, as Labs do. Also, as more and more families opt for a particular breed, dog breeders respond by increasing the number of litters their dogs produce. This practice lowers the price for a puppy, which also helps speed the breed's adoption along. A breed's popularity eventually plateaus when it becomes too common, and thus old hat, and the numbers begin to decline sharply once death and old age catch up with the formerly chic pooches. Unfortunately, this process can be accelerated by the excesses of the breeding industry; disreputable puppy producers can rush to breed trendy dogs without much regard for the animals' health. This has already been a problem with Labs, which often suffer arthritic hips due to inbreeding.
As a breed's popularity changes, its image changes as well. Now that Labs are everywhere (and make frequent appearances in the L.L. Bean catalog), they're seen as a kind of everydog: not an aristocratic accessory, but the perfect family pet. Many consumers have bought Labs on impulse without understanding the full ramifications of having a 70-pound hunter in one's home—especially if that home has a young child in it. Though playful and friendly by nature, Labs also have a fondness for putting small objects in their mouths, including, on occasion, a toddler's nice fat leg. (It's often recommended that families with children under 10 refrain from purchasing Labrador retriever puppies less than 12 months old.)
The poodle, meanwhile, which used to be seen as an intelligent, energetic companion, now comes off as a high-maintenance priss. When John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley came out in 1962, no one was surprised that the titular dog—Steinbeck's traveling companion on a cross-country road trip—was a standard poodle. The dogs were seen as hardy and tough. But ask a non-poodle owner today to describe the breed, and she'll probably bring up bouffant fur and a yappy demeanor.