The AKC (American Kennel Club) just published their annual list of the most popular dog breeds of the year. Once again in 2018, like every year since 1991, the Labrador Retriever holds the top spot; an unprecedented, 28-year reign.
With that unsurprising result, I wondered if anyone looked at favorite breed by the state- maybe that would be a little more interesting. Google instantly showed me a bunch of web articles with that answer, and after clicking on a few, I saw the same list of results repeated over and over again. It was oddly fascinating that no less than 30 different breeds were listed next to our 50 state names. Wow, that is a lot more diversity than I expected! And most articles ended up saying that America's favorite dog breed was (drum roll please) the Doberman Pinscher? Wait, what? Something was off here.
But it's on the internet - it must be true!
A few clicks later, I was staring at the source article that most of the others were referencing. It was a slick infographic that looked great. The source of the data was no less than Google itself. The authors of the article explained their methodology using a tool called Google Trends. Google Trends allows you to see what people all over the world are searching for. By the author's logic, more searches equal more popular. They entered the name of a dog breed, filtered the results by state and produced a unique and original method of assessing America's favorite dog breeds. That seemed very clever.
But before going any further, there must be some agreement on what a "favorite breed" even means. The gold standard for any information on dog breeds in the US has always been the AKC. Since the late 1800s, they've kept a tally of the dog breeds entered into their registry and used that to create their lists. They register between half a million and a million dogs every year. And while that's only a fraction of the nearly 90 million pet dogs in the US, it's likely a very accurate indication of "purebred" dog ownership. That data has always been the source for just about every article about favorite breeds- until this new one using Google Trends data.
It sounds reasonable to assume that if more people are doing Google searches for a breed, then that breed is more popular. But the results are so different, who should we believe?
Google Trends is an incredibly powerful tool for sorting an astounding amount of data. It only took me a few minutes to plug in some dog breed names and see the same results published in all the articles. Neat! But then I noticed what I believe is a logic error in how they arrived at their conclusions. After entering any search term, in this case, a dog breed, Google lists all the states, in order from the most searches to the fewest. The results don't show the actual numbers of searches. Instead, each state is given a score based on the ratio of its total searches. It's the only way to fairly compare the searches of 39 million Californians with half a million Wyoming residents. The authors used the list of scores and concluded that the state ranked at the top when searching any breed, must like that breed the most. They repeated that method for the 50 top breeds to compile their unique list; the highest ranking state deemed to prefer that breed the most. This method resulted in 30 different breeds winning various states and the Doberman Pinscher winning the most states at 6, thus “the most popular breed in the US.” And this was reprinted all across the whole interwebs.
That didn't feel right, and as it turns out, I don't think it is. Using Google Trends as they did, all they can really tell us is that, in the case of searches for "Doberman Pinschers," Texas (top state score) searched more than Vermont (last). It doesn't ask the more important question, just because Texas searched more for Dobermans than any other state, does that mean they searched more for Dobermans than they did for say, Labrador Retrievers? Without the actual number of searches to compare, it was impossible to know. Or was it?
To answer that exact question, Google Trends offers a "compare" feature. Even without showing the actual number of searches, Google was happy to compare the searches for any 2 dog breeds. I entered "Labrador Retriever" compared to "Doberman" and instantly got my answer. Even in Texas, there were far more searches for Labrador Retrievers than for Dobermans. In fact, nowhere in the country was the Doberman more popular than the Labrador Retriever and it wasn't even close. I plugged in more breeds (up to 5 at a time), and the Lab was top dog in all but a handful of states, just as the AKC reports, year after year.
Buried deep on their website, I found that the AKC also compiled a list of the most popular breeds broken out by state. According to them, in only five states was the Labrador Retriever NOT the favorite breed. According to the AKC, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida registered more German Shepherds making that the favorite breed in those states. Kentucky loves Beagles, and in Hawaii the French Bulldog is tops. These results seem more in line with conventional wisdom. Of course, an infographic showing 45 Labrador faces and only three other breeds wouldn't have been as catchy looking as the flawed Google Trends result.
Out of curiosity, I plugged combinations of breeds into Google Trends with my new methodology and got very close to, but not exactly the same results as the AKC list. It appears that the article's authors' reasoning to use Google Trends data, if done a bit differently, may actually be an accurate predictor of what dogs are actually being adopted and registered.
All the pieces of data were falling into place and ultimately in more agreement with each other. That is until I looked at Google searches for Bulldogs. The Bulldog was ranked 5th favorite in the nation by the AKC in 2018, and that was down a spot from the previous few years. And according to the AKC, the Bulldog wasn't the favorite in any state. So when I compared searches between Labs and Bulldogs, I expected Labradors to win handily. But no- according to Google Trends in 2018, in all but five states, more people searched for Bulldogs! If that's the case, and I have no reason to believe it's not, the Labrador Retriever's reign of 28 straight years as the most popular breed in the US might be coming to an end.
But for 2018, here’s the top five from the AKC. Go to their page for the full list.
1. Labrador Retriever
2. German Shepherd
3. Golden Retriever
4. French Bulldog