NEW YORK — In America’s backyards and living rooms, Labrador retrievers reign as top dogs. But the breed that has been the nation’s most popular for a record 23 years has never won its most elite dog show.
It’s a curiosity — not to say a frustration — for Lab lovers who have watched the Westminster Kennel Club’s prized best in show trophy at times go to breeds that many Americans might never have heard of, let alone scratched behind the ears.
While the Labs’ long drought continued Tuesday night when they were eliminated from this year’s competition, fans have become somewhat resigned to the equivalent of cheering a box-office star who somehow never wins the Oscar.
“They’re the best family dog, but they problem is: They’ll never win Westminster because they’re not flashy enough,” Sue Collins said Tuesday as she and fellow Lab breeder Michelle Birnhak looked after Birnhak’s dog, Joey, one of 76 Labs entered at Westminster.
While the breed regularly makes a big showing in numbers, “they haven’t given us the recognition,” said Collins, of Rocky Point, N.Y.
Known for their happy-go-lucky outlook and ability to play roles ranging from pet to search-and-rescue sleuth, Labs last year surpassed poodles’ 22-year stretch as the most prevalent purebred dogs in the U.S., the American Kennel Club announced last month. The organization doesn’t release raw numbers, just rankings.
Westminster has awarded the best in show title for more than a century, and several of today’s top 10 most popular breeds have won. Eighth-ranked poodles have triumphed at Westminster nine times, most recently in 2002. But four breeds in the top 10, including third-ranked golden retrievers, have never bounded off with the trophy.
Meanwhile, fox terriers — their three varieties 96th and lower on the popularity ladder — have been best in show 17 times. The Sealyham terrier, the 158th-most-prevalent breed, has logged four Westminster wins, though the last came in 1977.
In the last seven years, winners have included such familiar breeds as the beagle and Scottish terrier, but also some decided rarities: the pint-sized affenpinscher (143rd most prevalent) and the giant Scottish deerhound (165th).
To be sure, Westminster is meant to recognize the dog that best meets its breed’s standards, not the one that’s in the most homes. Plenty of obscure breeds have never won.
Still, theories abound about why the nation’s most numerous purebreds have yet to have their day at Westminster.
Breeder Deborah Weinman notes that Labs don’t have the eye-catching, lanky stride of a pointer, for instance, as they circle the judging ring. Breeder Emily Magnani wonders whether some breeds’ elaborate grooming can help them make an impression, compared to relatively what-you-see-is-what-you-get Labs.
Heidi Kellerman, who breeds both Labrador and golden retrievers, feels the very qualities that endear them to pet owners might not get them points in shows.
“A Lab and a golden retriever are truly the dog you can live with. ... I think maybe it’s taken for granted,” Kellerman, of Lawtons, N.Y., said as her 15-year-old daughter, Carolyn, prepared to show one of their goldens, Patrick, on Tuesday. Wet and awaiting a blow dry, he seemed unfazed by the throng of spectators passing by and taking pictures.
To David Frei, Westminster’s longtime TV host, Labs’ and goldens’ eager-to-please nature “takes an edge off them in the show ring,” compared to breeds more prone to display a bit of canine attitude.
“Terriers were bred to cause a little bit of trouble,” he chuckled. “I think that helps them stand out and draw attention in the ring.”
Lab aficionados might be wistful, but they’re not exactly worried if the breed lags at Westminster.
After all, Weinman smiled, “We don’t need any more popularity for our breed.”