Why Are Some Breeds of Dog More Popular Than Others?

Why are some breeds of dog more popular than others, and do different breeds really have different personalities? The answer to the second question is yes.
Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock
Do people choose a breed of dog for its personality, looks, health, or fashion?

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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There are so many breeds of dog, it can be hard to choose which one you'd like most. Some are always popular, while other breeds rise or fall in popularity.  A new study by Stefano Ghirlanda et al 2013 investigates whether changes in the most popular breeds over the years reflect personality characteristics, health, or fashion.

We think of different breeds as having different temperaments, such as the “friendly and gentle, but also alert and outgoing” Siberian Husky, the “alert, lively, active, keen” Russell Terrier “with a very intelligent expression,” or the “calm, confident and courageous” Rottweiler. The first question the scientists asked was, is this true?

For their answer, they turned to the C-BARQ, a standardized questionnaire about doggie behaviour and temperament. It has 14 scales including trainability, separation-related behaviour problems, energy levels and so on, and has been completed for over 12,000 dogs. They narrowed it down to a list of eighty different breeds, with data from a total of more than 8,000 dogs.

The results showed that different breeds do have different personalities. The results for the top ten breeds are shown in the figure below, with each coloured slice of pie representing a different C-BARQ scale. The most interesting one is that of trainability, which is shown by the green slice in the top left. Many of the top breeds score highly for trainability.

The Golden Retriever scores very high on trainability, and very low on everything else (mainly problem behaviours). Is this the perfect breed of dog?! The Poodle and Labrador Retriever are also highly trainable, with few problem behaviours.

Several of the top ten dog breeds have low scores for trainability, including the Chihuahua, the Miniature Schnauzer, and the Dachshund. Chihuahuas score highly on several problem behaviours including fear of strangers, fear of dogs, dog rivalry and touch sensitivity. The Miniature Schnauzer has high scores for chasing, dog aggression and excitability, amongst others, while the Dachshund has a tendency for dog aggression, stranger aggression and separation problems.

Despite this, they are very popular breeds, suggesting that other aspects are important in people's choices. And of course, part of the reason they exhibit these problems could be because small dogs tend to be treated differently (Arhant et al 2010).

C-BARQ subscales for the top ten dog breeds in the US
Source: PLoS One

But personality isn’t everything. Some breeds of dog live longer than others and have fewer health problems. For data on this, the researchers turned to previously published papers which rated breeds for longevity and health. The surveys showed an average lifespan of 11.45 years. Variability was large, ranging from 6.3 to 14.3 years. In general, large companion dogs have a shorter longevity (8.5 years) than medium (10 years) or small companion dogs (12.5 years).

They got information about the popularity of different breeds from the American Kennel Club, which has data going back to 1926 for over fifty million dogs. This study considered data from 1926 to 2005, and for the eighty breeds for which the behaviour and health data was available.

In 1926, the most popular breed of dog in the US was the German Shepherd, still very popular today. The Boston Terrier, Chow Chow, Fox Terrier and Pekingese round out the top five for that year.

There was no correlation between breed temperament and popularity. Nor was there any correlation between longevity and popularity. However, there was a significant correlation between the popularity of a dog breed and the number of inherited health disorders that breed tends to suffer from. In other words, the more popular breeds tend to have more health problems. The authors say this suggests "health considerations have been secondary in the decision to acquire dogs as well as in dog breeding practices."

They also found that between 1996 and 2005, the breeds with the most health problems declined in popularity. This could be because of increasing awareness of the health problems that go with those breeds. 

The authors say that “If anything, our results suggest that breeds can become popular despite problematic behaviour, rather than because of good behaviour.” It seems that behaviour and health are not the main reasons why people choose particular breeds of dog; perhaps fashion and looks are more compelling.

What breed(s) of dog do you have, and why did you choose them?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123(3-4), 131-142.
Ghirlanda, S., Acerbi, A., Herzog, H., & Serpell, J. A. (2013). Fashion vs. function in cultural evolution: The case of dog breed popularity. PLoS One, 8(9), e74770.

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