NEW YORK — It's puppy love for the record books: The Labrador retriever was the nation's most popular dog breed last year for a 23rd year in a row, the American Kennel Club announced Friday.
That's the longest any breed has been top dog since the organization's 1884 founding.
German shepherds, golden retrievers, beagles and bulldogs are holding steady in the top-five pack, with Yorkshire terriers, boxers, poodles, Rottweilers and dachshunds continuing to round out the leading 10, which mirrors last year. But the comical French bulldog is newly on their heels after a decade-long popularity spurt.
Surpassing the poodle's 22-year reign some decades ago, the Lab has proliferated as a congenial, highly trainable dog that was developed to fetch game but has readily taken on other roles: search-and-rescue aid, therapy dog, competitor in canine sports and all-around family pet.
"They're a very versatile dog. They'll adapt to just about anything," says Michael Wiest of Warren, N.J., who has bred them for 45 years.
The rankings reflect newly registered dogs, mostly puppies. The AKC doesn't release exact numbers but estimates its registry has included more than 40 million purebred dogs over its history.
The top 10 remains a testament to the variety of purebreds, from the pert, portable Yorkie to the muscular, purposeful Rottweiler. But overall, the AKC has logged some leaning toward larger dogs in the past decade.
Shih tzus and Chihuahuas have dropped out of the top 10, while Rottweilers and bulldogs have marched in. Such big breeds as the Doberman pinscher, the Bernese mountain dog and even the great Dane have made double-digit gains on the popularity ladder.
But no breed has rocketed up the rankings quite like the French bulldog, now the nation's 11th most popular purebred after its numbers more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. The Frenchie was 14th last year -- and 58th in 2002.
With foreshortened faces, large pointed ears and an attitude that's been described as "a clown in the cloak of a philosopher," French bulldogs were in vogue in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. Then their popularity waned until recent years, when they've gotten exposure in such venues as Martha Stewart's chic-domesticity empire, TV's Modern Family and a 2012 Skechers Super Bowl commercial (not to mention the Rays locker room where Astro, David Price's dog, is a fixture.
Some people flock to Frenchies because they're compact and don't need a lot of exercise or elaborate coat care.
After 15 years of breeding cocker spaniels, Gale Golden developed tendinitis in her elbow and had difficulty brushing them, so she decided to try the short-coated Frenchie. Now she has eight.
"They have so many funny and endearing qualities," including being people-oriented, said Golden, of Marlborough, Mass. "A Frenchie is everyone's friend."
Still, popularity causes some consternation for aficionados, who fear demand can drive irresponsible breeding.
To be sure, dog breeding in general has critics who feel it's more focused on human tastes than canine health and draws dog lovers away from mixed-breed pets that need homes. Purebred fans counter that conscientious breeding aims to create healthy dogs with somewhat predictable traits, helping people and dogs make lasting pairings.