For the 31st year in a row, the Labrador retriever was the most registered breed in the United States in 2021, according to registration data from the American Kennel Club.
The March 15 announcement included rankings of 197 dog breeds based on more than 800,000 purebred puppies and dogs.
The wonderful thing about purebred dogs is their predictability, according to David Frei, who was the voice of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for 27 years and co-hosts the National Dog Show and Beverly Hills Dog Show with “Seinfeld” actor John O’Hurley. Dogs are bred for specific traits, from appearance to temperament.
“The reason we have so many breeds is that there are so many different kinds of people out there,” Frei told TODAY.
So what predictable qualities make Labs the top dog? For that matter, what traits do the other popular breeds possess?
No. 1 — Labrador Retriever
It’s hard to pin down one reason why the Labrador retriever is so beloved, but versatility has to be a big reason, according to Frei.
“They’re great with kids, happy, well-adjusted, active, smart,” he told TODAY. “If dogs could talk, I know what a Labrador would say: ‘Me too, me too.’ They want to be doing what you’re doing.”
The qualities that make Labs such terrific family dogs and hunting companions also help them excel as working dogs, he noted. For instance, Labs work as bomb and arson detection dogs; epilepsy and diabetic alert dogs; search-and-rescue dogs; conservation detection dogs; service dogs for people with mobility issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism; assistance dogs for people with hearing loss; and guide dogs.
Trevor Thomas, aka the Blind Hiker, hiked over 13,000 miles of backcountry trails with a Labrador retriever from the nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind. He and Tennille, a black Lab, set a lot of firsts together. For example, Thomas became the first blind person to complete the nearly 500-mile Colorado Trail without a human guide, and Tennille was the first guide dog to finish it.
She also knows more than 600 words and can locate brand name goods in the grocery store, to the astonishment of other shoppers. His new guide dog, a yellow Lab named Lulu, is proving equally smart and athletic — and shares a love of adventure.
“Every day they amaze me with what they can do. And I try not to underestimate what they can do. I try to set my expectations and the bar very, very high. But even though I do that, they still seem to find a way to surprise me — and in a positive way,” Thomas, 52, told TODAY.
But he’s not at all surprised that Labs have been America’s top dog for over three decades.
“There is a reason for that,” he said. “They are the best dog.”
No. 2 — French Bulldog
Fans of the canine character Stella on “Modern Family” won’t be surprised that French bulldogs, aka Frenchies, are so popular. In fact, there’s something inherently comedic about their looks — like their distinctive “bat ears” — and personality.
“They’ve got kind of an old face almost, with a few wrinkles in it, but they also look like they’re young and energetic. They have a pretty unique expression,” Frei said. “They can be real clowns.”
He said the world’s first French bulldog specialty show took place in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria in 1898. A champion Frenchie named Gamin de Pycombe perished on board the Titanic, which sank a week before the 1912 show.
He noted that in 2021, French bulldogs were the most popular purebred dog in New York City, according to the AKC, which makes sense since their temperament, size and energy level is well-suited for apartment living.
“You don’t need to go for a run with a Frenchie — you go for a walk,” he quipped. “People love the look. They’re very entertaining and fun to be around, and I think that’s what’s giving them a place on this list.”
No. 3 — Golden Retriever
Like the Labrador retriever, a golden retriever has never won best in show at prestigious American dog shows like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show or the National Dog Show — much to the consternation of fans of the beloved family dog.
Frei said one of the qualities that make Labs and goldens so popular — an eagerness to please their people — might be the same trait that keeps them from winning in conformation competitions.
“Sporting dogs like the golden and the Lab, they want to be in your world. They want to do whatever you’re telling them to do,” he said. “And some of these other dogs, like the terriers, they don’t care about their handlers — I say that half-jokingly. They were bred to look for trouble, so they're on their toes looking around saying, ‘What can I do now?’ And the Labs and goldens, they just say, ‘OK, what are we going to do now?’ looking at their people instead of looking at what’s going on around them.”
It’s more important that with their golden fur, intelligence and friendly dispositions, golden retrievers have won the hearts of people around the world — including animal lover extraordinaire Betty White, who adored her golden retriever, Pontiac.
No. 4 — German Shepherd
German shepherds gained celebrity status in the early 1900s with film stars Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin. Both dogs have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They’re also consistently in the top 10 most popular dogs thanks to their intellect, athleticism and versatility, according to Frei.
“They really are the total dog,” he said. “They can do everything. They’re a companion animal. They do police work. They’re service dogs. They’re guide dogs. Their temperament and character lets them do just about anything that you would ask them to do. They’re a confident dog.”
The regal dogs are also successful as show dogs. In fact, the champion German shepherd Manhattan, who won Westminster in 1987, is one of Frei’s favorite show dogs of any breed.
No. 5 — Poodle
Poodles — including toy, miniature and standard — round out the top five breeds for 2021. It’s a comeback for the breed that held the top spot from 1960 to 1982 but then went out of fashion for a spell.
“People just have a misconception about poodles because of the haircut,” Frei lamented. “If I were the PR guy for poodles, I would say, 'Let’s let them be shown in a sporting cut.'”
If I were the PR guy for poodles, I would say, 'Let’s let them be shown in a sporting cut.'
He knows how much work goes into the fastidious grooming and doesn’t want to disparage those efforts. Still, poodles were bred to be water retrieving dogs and the full coat protected their internal organs from the cold, he noted.
“They’re great athletic dogs — I’d have a poodle in a minute,” he said. “They’re amongst the smartest breeds you could have, and they’ve got a size for everybody and a color for everyone. It’s a fun breed.”
No. 6 — Bulldog
Bulldogs are popular pets as well as school mascots — a bulldog is a mascot for more than 40 colleges and universities in America, according to Frei.
“I always figure they’re the cartoonist’s dream because of that expression — it’s that kind of sour expression but they’re the furthest thing from being sour,” he said. “They’re great, fun family dogs.”
No. 7 — Beagle
For starters, the classic “Peanuts” character Snoopy is a beagle. How can America not love this breed?
Beagles love people but are also independent since they’ll follow their powerful noses anywhere — one reason they excel at sniffing out contraband at customs checkpoints or bedbugs in hotels.
When a beagle named Uno won Westminster in 2008, mayhem ensued. The champion lived with Frei for half the year and the country’s love of the charismatic breed was on full display. Uno drew a crowd wherever they went, whether throwing out the first pitch at MLB baseball games (well, fetching a ball thrown by Frei) or riding on a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float with — you guessed it! — Snoopy.
“He loved the attention and he loved doing things. He became a therapy dog with me and we went to five different Ronald McDonald houses around the country,” Frei recalled. “They’re a great all-American dog, you know?”
No. 8 — Rottweiler
Frei likes to call rottweilers “the middle linebacker of dogs” and said he loves the breed. But, as with any dog, it’s important to know what their temperament is like and what their training needs are before welcoming one home, he noted.
“You’d better be smarter than your rottweiler if you’re going to get a rottweiler,” Frei said. “You have to be firm with them — let them know you’re in charge and that you love them and that you’re going to take good care of them. … They love to work. They need to work.”
You’d better be smarter than your rottweiler if you’re going to get a rottweiler.
Rottweilers originally worked as drover dogs that drove the cattle to market. That required athleticism and toughness — “you have to take a hoof in the chest every once in a while,” as he noted.
“Here’s my fun fact about rotties: the owners of the dogs, when they sold cattle in the market, put their purses with the money around the neck of the rottweiler. Nobody’s going to take that from the rottweiler,” he said.
But Frei hopes people won’t get a rottweiler for the sake of seeming macho.
“If you need a macho dog to show you’re macho, you aren’t macho,” he said.
No. 9 — German Shorthaired Pointer
Active people are often fans of the German shorthaired pointer because the dogs are so energetic and can be terrific running partners and hunting companions. With their webbed feet and water-repellent coat, they’re also fantastic swimmers.
“We call German shorthaired pointers the SUV of sporting dogs because they can do it all,” Frei quipped. “They’re smart; they’re athletic. If you’ve got a German shorthaired pointer, you’d better be ready to go for long walks or runs every day if they need that.”
No. 10 — Dachshund
Dachshunds come in different sizes and with three coat varieties — smooth-haired, wire-haired and long-haired — but they’re instantly recognizable by the public as charming “wiener dogs.” (Fun fact: With a wink to hot dogs, "Saturday Night Live" star Kenan Thompson had a beloved wiener dog named Nathan.)
“They’re all going to be long, low and level,” Frei said. “They have a lot of terrier personality in them. They were bred to hunt badgers and probably other ‘bad guys,’ so they have a certain fearless temperament about them. They’re tough, little, solid dogs.”
No. 11 — Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Pembroke Welsh corgis are good enough for a queen — literally. Queen Elizabeth II surrounded herself with the stout little dogs. The internet loves them too, including their “butts” with the docked tails, which you’ll find emblazoned on T-shirts, hats and even sticking out from the inside of coffee cups.
California resident and dog writer Elaine Gewirtz says her corgi, Midge, is a character — just like most corgis you’ll meet.
“They’re not a breed that just sits and looks at you,” she told TODAY.
Corgis excel at dog sports like agility and home pastimes like cuddling. The bright, intuitive dogs also love to make friends with people and other dogs, and are typically fascinated by what’s going on around them, she added.
No. 12 — Australian Shepherd
Hiking trails, particularly in the West, often teem with Australian shepherds since they are so athletic. As a herding breed, Aussies are bred for stamina, so they’re adept on ranches and for long treks outside. They’re also fiercely intelligent. Be ready to offer plenty of training and exercise.
No. 13 — Yorkshire Terrier
The Yorkshire terrier — recognizable by that long, luxurious coat — typically weighs in at just 7 pounds. But the Yorkie’s diminutive size doesn’t denote a small personality. In fact, the AKC’s breed standard includes, “The dog’s high head carriage and confident manner should give the appearance of vigor and self-importance.”
No. 14 — Boxer
Boxers have a face that tends to bring a smile to ours. Plus, they’re playful, smart and affectionate; as the American Boxer Club notes, “The Boxer’s most notable characteristic is his desire for human affection.”
No. 15 — Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
People love Cavalier King Charles spaniels not only for their sweet, “lap-loving personalities” but also because they are multipurpose dogs, according to Kim Campbell Thornton, a dog writer and editor — and Cavalier enthusiast.
“They’re happy to do dog sports, go on a hike or to the beach, or just be a couch potato with you. Whatever you want to do, they’re game,” she told TODAY. “Finally, their size makes them great travelers, which is important with so many people taking their dogs on trips with them these days.”
No. 16 — Doberman Pinscher
The Doberman pinscher can have a fearsome reputation. But the dog “of yesterday’s scary movies” is still protective but now also a fun-loving athletic dog and “discerning companion,” according to the Doberman Pinscher Club of America.
The intelligent dogs also boast qualities like fearlessness, loyalty and an energetic nature. As with all dogs, socialization and positive training is key.
No. 17 — Great Dane
“My running joke about the Great Dane is that my parents never got me a pony as a kid, so my Danes fill that purpose,” Colorado resident Susan Kohut told TODAY.
Kohut has adopted four Great Danes from rescue organizations. (Purebred dogs can wind up in local shelters, and there are more than 450 AKC Rescue Network groups across the country.) She loves them for being goofy, silly, loyal and adaptable. Her current Dane, Eloise, will happily hike for 6 miles, but if the weather isn’t nice, she’s fine with a short walk and then a cuddle up on the couch.
No. 18 — Miniature Schnauzer
The miniature schnauzer’s beard makes the breed instantly recognizable — plus, they don't shed much.
The spunky dogs are highly recommended for families with children by the AKC, which lists other positive attributes as being bright, friendly, trainable and fearless without aggression.
No. 19 — Siberian Husky
There’s no question that Siberian huskies are head turners — but they’re more than just a pretty face.
Colorado resident Heather Mundt, a freelance writer and family travel expert, said she and her husband got their first husky in 1997 and fell in love with the breed’s love of exercise. (She was quick to mention that this affinity can make them “monsters” without enough of it and that they bore easily).
“Huskies are always ready for a run or hike, so they’re great adventurers. They’re also beautiful but willful. Which means they’re tough to train. But I adore them, and they’ve always been great with kids,” she told TODAY. “The two we have now, Boris and Tasha, are pandemic rescues, and I was reluctant to get them because I hate losing my pets. But I’m so glad to have huskies in my life again because they are so entertaining. Plus I joke they’re my favorite children now that my boys are teens. At least the dogs are glad to see me.”
No. 20 — Bernese Mountain Dog
Driving through Switzerland — and in the city of Bern — you’ll see images of the Bernese mountain dog on postcards and souvenirs. It’s only natural that the Swiss would feel pride in the gentle giants known for being affectionate, hardy, strong, intelligent, even-tempered and eager to please.
Here's a complete list of rankings of the top 197 dog breeds.
Choosing the right dog for you
Before bringing home any dog, it’s important to realize what you’re getting into and learn about the care a dog will need, such as training. As Frei mentioned, “They aren’t born with an obedience degree.”
It’s also crucial to work with responsible breeders whose motivation is to preserve the best traits of a breed and perform health checks, rather than backyard breeders just looking to profit, he added.
“Responsible purebred dog breeders — heritage breeders — are fighting to keep some of these breeds alive. Not just to keep the breed alive, which they are in a lot of cases, but to make sure that the best of those traits in those breeds come forth,” he said. “They’re going to be a lifetime member of your family.”
So choose that family member carefully and bear in mind that the most popular dogs might not be the right pets for everyone.