The Labrador Retriever was developed in England in the mid 1800s by a handful of private kennels dedicated to developing and refining the perfect gundog. That many such kennels were pursuing their own vision of such a dog is the reason behind the variety of today’s retriever breeds.
Contents & Quick Navigation
- Characteristics and Temperament
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Special Medical Problems
- Further reading: Labrador Retriever Mixes
Characteristics and Temperament
The main characteristics of Labradors are their coat, tail, head, and temperament. They have a double coat: a soft, downy undercoat that keeps them dry and warm in cold water and a hard outer coat that helps them repel water.
Their tail described best as an otter tail, is thick at the base and tapers to a narrower point. It should not be carried over the back nor should it have a curl to it. It should, however, be at exactly coffee table height and always be ready to swipe one clean.
Their head is clean cut and somewhat broad, with hanging ears. Their expression is alert and intelligent and conveys a kind, friendly temperament.
Their best feature is their temperament. Labs are loving, people-oriented dogs. They are happiest when they are with you. Labs are retrievers and will bring you things they find laying about your house or yard.
They tend to be quite patient with children and wonderful family dogs. They are not guard dogs. They may bark protectively, but will generally not act more aggressively. Labs are wonderful people dogs, more likely to lick someone to death than hurt them.
They tend to be stable, not easily upset by strange things or occurrences. They will take many things in stride.
In the U.S., there are two distinct “lines” of Labradors: field lines and show lines. Fieldline Labradors have been bred with an emphasis on field or hunting ability, and show line Labradors have been bred with an emphasis on conformation and temperament.
There is some dissension between the two groups, with field people claiming that show lines have lost much of their hunting and retrieving abilities, and show people claiming that field lines do not much look like Labradors any more and lack correct temperament.
The truth is likely somewhere in between. Dogs from field lines will generally have a lot of drive, and will often exhibit more energy. Dogs from show lines might not be as fast, but most are capable hunters, though not necessarily field trial material.
Either type can make a pleasant companion for a day out of doors.
Labrador Retrievers are people- and action-oriented dogs, and can become bored if left to their own devices. Untrained, they can be unmanageable due to their size and enthusiasm.
Unexercised, they will often turn to destruction or escape to alleviate boredom and excess energy. They require attention and love as much as food and water. Labradors are easy to train which makes obedience work a fun way to interact with your dog.
Labradors also require plenty of exercises — this is especially true since most Labs love to eat! Ensuring they get proper exercise, training, and attention will give you a happy, healthy Labrador.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a Labrador and a Retriever?
Retrievers are a type of dog. They are, literally, dogs that retrieve and were originally bred to retrieve game for hunters both on land and in the water.
There are six breeds recognized as Retrievers by the AKC. They are: Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Flat Coated Retrievers, Curly Coated Retrievers and Irish Water Spaniels.
There are other breeds of Retrievers not currently recognized by the AKC, for example CKC’s Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.
Labradors don’t shed, do they?
Actually, they do. Labradors have what is called a double coat. This means that they have a soft, downy undercoat and a harder guard coat. These two types of coat help keep the dog warm and dry while swimming in cold waters when retrieving ducks.
Generally Labradors will shed their coat twice a year. This is called “blowing” their coat. They are moderate shedders, not enthusiastic ones such as Alaskan Malamutes or German Shepherd Dogs.
There will be a certain amount of hair loss throughout the year, especially in more temperate climates. This varies individually; some Labradors shed less than others, especially if they happen to have an incorrect coat.
How much grooming do they need?
Labs need to be brushed on a regular basis (about once a week) to keep them clean. This will also help keep the shedding under control. A “slicker” type brush, which you can buy at any pet store, works nicely.
Labs, like all dogs, need to have their toenails clipped regularly. You can get a canine nail clipper at any pet store and your vet can demonstrate to you the best way to clip their nails. Labs do not need to be bathed frequently.
The Labrador coat does not need constant attention. A true bath, which includes shampooing the coat, is only necessary if the dog smells bad.
Generally, if a dog is merely dusty or muddy, you can rinse them off with plain water or wait until they are dry and brush the dirt out to restore them to cleanliness. Shampooing them too often is not a good idea as shampoo tends to strip the natural oils out of their coats. A properly oily coat repels dirt and sheds water easily.
In general, Labrador coats are low-maintenance.
Are Labradors hyper?
A Labrador with correct temperament is never hyperactive. Individual dogs can be. With the steady increase of popularity of the breed in recent years, more and more Labradors are being bred by people who have less regard for temperament than established breeders.
Some people claim that field line Labradors are hyper and show lines are mellow. Others claim that field line Labradors are mellow and show lines are hyper! In reality, it appears that “backyard bred” Labradors have by far the worst temperaments.
If you don’t breed for good temperaments, you won’t get them except by accident. (“Backyard breeders” refers to people with little or no knowledge of breeding dogs doing so mostly for the money or because it seems the thing to do, or even by accident.
A better term is “disreputable breeders.” There are plenty of small-scale, or hobby, breeders with wonderful reputations for producing sound, good-tempered, well-balanced dogs.)
The best advice for finding a Labrador with the right temperament is to thoroughly investigate the breeders you are considering. Ask to see their other dogs–this should give you an idea of the energy level you can expect from their puppies.
Ask for the names of other people who have previously purchased dogs from them — and then contact these people and ask them whether they’d recommend this breeder or not. Labradors with poor temperaments are often the result of thoughtless breeding and will not appear in dogs from either show lines or field lines that have been conscientiously bred.
However, Labradors are active dogs, especially in puppyhood. And Labradors often do not fully mature until around 3 years of age! This means you will have a dog that is mentally a puppy (with a puppy’s energy) until this age regardless of its physical size!
Often a Lab puppy is labeled hyperactive when it is simply a normal, exuberant and bouncy puppy. If you are prepared to deal with this period of time in their lives, you will not have problems.
It is the people caught unprepared who then label their puppy hyperactive and incorrigible and dump it.
We would like to stress that such dogs, untrained and unexercised, WILL be a huge problem for their owners, becoming destructive, unmanageable, and in many cases escape artists. Once under proper discipline (which does NOT mean beating the dog!), most of these Labs will shape up into good pets.
What is “butt-tucking”?
“Butt-tucking” (not limited to Labs) is when your pup suddenly starts running in circles at top speed with his rear tucked under him. Most Labradors do this. It does not indicate a problem with your Lab, either with its temperament or its joints.
However, you will want to keep a sharp eye out that you are not injured during this free-for-all!
Labradors are popular, aren’t they?
Yes. Since 1991, they have been the top registered dog with the AKC. At the end of 1997, the U.S. President got a chocolate Labrador. This means that there are a lot of people out there breeding Labradors hoping to make a few quick bucks (as opposed to improving the breed). You need to be very careful about where you get your Labrador.
Disreputable breeders are the primary source for hyper, ill-behaved and ill-favored Labradors. With a bit of research and care, you can find good puppies. The average price for a properly bred Labrador puppy is about 400-600 dollars, more for a show- or field trial- quality puppy.
If you are asked to pay substantially more or less for a puppy without good reason given, be wary.
I’m confused — which kind of Labrador will make a better hunter, a show-line or field-line Labrador?
Most Labradors, show and field bred, make great hunters. Your own level of expertise in picking out likely puppies and training them is probably as important as the pedigree of the dog.
You should consider what kind of hunting you do, how much experience you have, and discuss all of this with the breeders you consult.
If you are specifically interested in field trials, you are advised to look for good field trial kennels. (Just as, if you are interested in showing in conformation, you should look for good breed ring kennels.)
This split is unfortunate, but it does occur since both field trials and conformation trials are essentially highly specialized sports. Very few breeders have the resources to compete seriously in both venues.
No matter which lines you are interested in, you should try to find the puppies that are well balanced with correct structure and conformation as the base.
Whether you are interested in pet, show, hunting, etc., will determine the other characteristics that you want. But an unsound dog does not make a good show dog, hunter, obedience dog, nor pet!
Do they make good guard dogs?
Labradors are not reliable guards. Some can be protective and most will probably bark if they hear or see something they don’t like — particularly if it is near their yard.
If your main purpose in getting a dog is to have a guard dog, a Labrador is not a good choice, but if you want an “alarm” barker, most Labradors are fine.
What kind of work can Labradors do?
Besides hunting, doing field trials, and being terrific pets? Quite a bit. Many Labradors are used as Service and Therapy dogs, for example. Still others do very well in Search and Rescue work, as well as making excellent Bomb, Narcotic, and Arson dogs.
Their nose, disposition, and trainability make them particularly suitable for these types of activities and the breed has a distinguished history in these endeavors.
Interestingly, in comparison to other breeds, such as Goldens, there are relatively few Labradors in obedience competition. No one is quite certain why, although of course several theories have been advanced, from Labradors are a little too “disobedient” (a necessary ability in Service work — to disobey an unsafe command), to most people with Labradors being involved in other activities such as Hunt Tests.
How are they with children?
As a breed, Labradors tend to be good with children. However, as with any dog, it is not a good idea to let puppies and children play unattended. Both puppies and children tend to be unaware of their own size and strength and could accidentally injure one another.
Labradors aren’t likely to intentionally hurt anyone, but could knock a child over when they thought they were playing. By the same measure, children can inadvertently hurt a puppy if they aren’t supervised.
As a parent of a young child and the owner of a young Lab puppy, realize that you will have to spend time teaching both the child and the puppy how to behave around one another.
Note that a Labrador that is not well trained nor properly exercised is much more of an accidental hazard to children than one who is kept firmly under control.
Do Labradors like to swim?
Labradors love to swim. In general, they take to swimming quite naturally. But don’t be alarmed if your little pup is unsure about swimming the first time–they have to learn about swimming just like anything else.
Neverthrow a young puppy into the water! If you have an adult dog around that enjoys swimming, the pup will probably follow it in happily. You could also wade in yourself and have the pup follow. Be aware though that pups have sharp nails which can be painful if they try to climb up on you in the water.
The pup’s first introduction to the water should be at a spot where there is a gradual entry, rather than a sharp drop off, and there should be no current at all. Let the pup explore the water at his own pace; if he just wants to splash and wade for now, let him. As he gains confidence, he will go in deeper.
Another important caveat is that dogs should not be allowed unattended access to a swimming pool unless you know that they know how to get out. Dogs often cannot easily pull themselves out of the pool and even strong swimmers will tire if they can’t find an easy way out of the water.
And if you do let your Lab in your swimming pool, check that filter often! Dogs shed much more than people do.
Are there golden Labs? What is the difference between golden and yellow Labs?
Labradors come in three colors: black, chocolate, and yellow. Yellow Labradors are often mistakenly called “golden Labradors.” The term yellow refers to a range of color from nearly white to gold to fox-red.
The Golden Retriever is a separate breed from the Labrador, although there are similarities. Sometimes the term is used informally to refer to a Labrador / Golden Retriever mix.
Are there any other colors of Labradors?
No. Black, chocolate, and yellow are the only correct colors. While mis-marked purebred Labradors are possible, be wary of those selling “rare” Labradors of other colors at exorbitant prices. There are yellow Labradors that are so pale they appear white, but they are still considered to be yellow and will usually have some color, even if it is only on the ear tips.
These lighter yellows not unusual nor rare and should not command a significant price hike. The same goes for “fox red” Labradors. Variations in the color of yellow Labradors are not penalized, but treated the same as any other yellow Labrador; however, the lighter shades tend to predominate in the ring at this time.
“Silver” Labradors are purely a scam and are either crosses with Weimaraners or very light chocolates. An actual silver Labrador (possibly a dilute chocolate) would be treated as a mismarked dog and not command a high price.
To our knowledge, “blue” Labradors (dilute blacks) have never been offered, but if they were, the same caveats as the silver Labs would apply. It’s possible the silver Labs are actually dilute blacks; no one has done any test breeding to verify and the owners of the silver kennels are remarkably secretive about their dogs.
However, based on a comparison with Doberman Pinschers, it seems reasonable to speculate that silvers are dilute chocolates (“fawns” in Dobermans).
Can you get yellow Labradors from black ones? And vice versa? What about chocolates?
Yes, you can get yellows from blacks and blacks from yellows. Similarly, you can get chocolates from blacks or yellows and vice-versa. It all depends on what color genes the parents carry.
The only absolutes are that if both parents are yellow, the resulting puppies are always yellow, never black or chocolate; if both parents are chocolate, you can get yellow or chocolate puppies but never black ones.
Are there differences between Labs of different colors?
Aside from the color itself, there are no differences. Many people feel that black Labs are better hunters, yellow dogs are lazier, and chocolate dogs are hardheaded and stubborn. None of this is true. The reason is pure genetics.
Coat color in normally colored Labs is determined by two genes unrelated to anything else about the dog. It is perfectly possible to get all three colors in the same litter, therefore the notion that there is a color based difference in temperament and/or ability is absurd.
Alright, so what is the nitty gritty on coat color inheritance?
Two sets of genes, not one, control a Lab’s coloration. One set of genes controls whether the Lab will be dark (either black or chocolate) or light (yellow). Dark is dominant over light.
Thus a Lab whose genotype is EE (homozygous dominant) or Ee (heterozygous) will be dark; only Labs that are ee (homozygous recessive) can be light.
The second set of genes only come into play if the Lab is dark (either EE or Ee). This set controls whether the Lab is black (the dominant trait) or chocolate (the recessive trait).
Thus, a dark dog (ie. EE/Ee) that is BB (homozygous dominant) or Bb (heterozygous) will be black, while the only way a dog can be chocolate is for it to be dark (EE/Ee) AND bb (homozygous recessive).
So now, the possibilities for black dogs are EEBB, EEBb, EeBB, or EeBb. The possibilities for a yellow dog are eeBB, eeBb, or eebb. And the possibilities for a chocolate dog are EEbb or Eebb.
Remember that puppies will get one E/e from the dam and one from the sire, as well as one B/b from the dam and one from the sire to make up their complete “code”.
If you had two parents that were both EeBb (black in appearance), you can get all three colors in the resulting litter! Furthermore, when you realize that a pair of yellows can only give their puppies the ee combination, you understand why two yellows only produce yellows.
In a similar fashion, two chocolates can only bequeath bb to their puppies, so two chocolates can never produce a black puppy.
The eebb is an interesting case, as this is a yellow dog with chocolate pigmentation on its nose and eye rims. A dog that is bb always has this pigmentation. Under the current standard, a yellow with chocolate pigmentation is disqualified.
If the Lab is mismarked, for example, Black and Tan, or brindled, there are other allelles present in that dog’s makeup. If you are interested in a further discussion of these genes, do look up Clarence C. Little’s classic book, The Inheritance of Coat Color in Dogs.
Traditionally, the way to determine a dog’s genetic background for color is to examine the whelping box: a dog that produces yellows and/or chocolate carries those genes.
And dogs carry what their parents have; a black with one yellow or chocolate parent must carry the yellow or chocolate gene. But for those who really want to know for certain can now make use of a simple cheek swab test to determine their dog’s genotype. VetGen (1-800-483-8436) has such a test for $85.
What is a Dudley?
This is a yellow Labrador with chocolate pigmentation (eebb). It can also refer to a Lab with absolutely no pigmentation on the nose or eyerims (all pink in color), but in actuality, this is extremely rare, and probably a genetic abnormality.
Please be aware that, while this trait is considered undesirable, it does not indicate some sort of genetic abnormality. There is no known correlation between Dudley noses and poor health.
But I see some Labradors with a pinkish nose.
Yes, this happens with many breeds, actually. It is called “winter nose” or “snow nose.” Many yellow Labs will have dark noses in the summer that fade somewhat in the winter and repeat the cycle the next year.
It is not understood why this happens. You can see it in many northern breeds such as Huskies and Malamutes as well. This is not considered a fault in any of these breeds and is not penalized.
To differentiate between Labs with faded noses and Dudleys, check the eyerims and gum tissue of the dogs. A Dudley will have only light pink or tan skin; the other dogs will have black pigment in these areas.
Do they jump fences? Are they good escape artists?
They are not renowned for this as a breed, although individual Labradors can be clever at escaping. Some can be good at opening doors and latches. A six-foot fence properly grounded will keep a Labrador from jumping, although many Labradors will never jump a four-foot fence perimeter.
Because they can chew a lot, take care that your enclosure cannot be chewed through. They can also be good climbers, so check for possible footholds the dog could use to haul himself up (for example, check if a doghouse provides a platform from which to jump a fence).
A Lab that is bored and/or underexercised may turn into an escape artist par excellence.
Do they bark a lot?
Bored Labradors can, but excessive barking is not generally typical of the breed. Labradors often give a warning bark in response to an unusual event that they feel needs your attention, such as “Hey, a car pulled into the driveway!”
Will a male or female Labrador make a better pet?
Both sexes make good pets. In general, male Labradors are more dependent and females are somewhat independent.
For example, if you are at home working on your computer, your male Labrador will probably sleep right under your feet while your female will probably sleep in the other room and just come in and check on you periodically.
For most people, a male Labrador will probably make the best pet!
Where should I get my dog?
You have to first decide if you are getting a puppy or an adult Lab. If you choose to get an adult dog, you could get one from the pound, from a Labrador Rescue organization, or from a breeder who is looking for a home for an adult Labrador.
There is more about Rescue organizations at the end of this file. If you decide to get a puppy, you should do some research and find a reputable breeder you trust.
How do I choose a puppy?
You need to do some homework before you start talking to breeders and certainly before you look at any puppies. You need to make some decisions about what sex and color you’d like. What you plan to do with the dog.
What kind of temperament you’d like. Once you have some answers to those questions, you should discuss your concerns and ideas with breeders. After you have found a breeder you like, then allow the breeder to help you select your puppy.
Most breeders have a pretty good idea of what the puppies’ personalities are like and will guide you to a good choice.
What health problems are Labradors prone to?
Hip and elbow dysplasia can be a problem, so be sure to look for breeders that certify their dogs through OFA or Wind-Morgan. Progressive Retinal Atrophy and Retinal Dysplasia are both problems in this breed, so dogs being bred must be examined yearly by an veterinary ophthalmologist.
Labradors are prone to mild skin allergies in some regions of the US, notably Southern California. Ear infections are always a potential problem with hanging ears. You can minimize the potential for health problems by choosing the breeder of your puppy carefully.
What is this I hear about the lawsuit with the AKC?
Over the past five years or so, the national breed club for Labrador Retrievers (the LRC) has been trying to revise the standard for the breed. Many bench, or show, people objected to the revisions being made.
The AKC took the unprecedented step, because of the amount of controversy on the subject, of returning the first submitted revision in 1993. The LRC resubmitted the revised standard, still over the objections of the bench community, and the standard took effect April 1, 1994.
As the new standard included disqualifications for height, some breeders are now unable to show their dogs, and six of them put together a lawsuit based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, claiming that the LRC rewrote the standard to admit their dogs to the ring while excluding the objecting breeders’ dogs.
It is important to remember that a large part of the controversy revolves around the fact that the LRC has a limited membership — the most popular AKC breed in the US has a national breed club composed of 700 members, down from 900 several years ago.
Most of these members are oriented toward field trials. Many show oriented fanciers greatly resented the lack of involvement allowed them throughout the revision process.
On the other side of the issue, the LRC and the AKC have stated that they do not feel the standard provides any hardship to Labrador breeders and have asked that the suit be dismissed due to lack of merit. There is a good deal of acrimony on both sides that has contributed to the overall issue.
At the moment the lawsuit against the LRC and the AKC is still pending.
It’s fairly clear that there were no indigenous dogs in Newfoundland when the first fishing companies arrived. If the native Americans of the time had any, the explorers never observed them.
Thus it’s quite likely that the St. Johns dogs themselves come from old English Water Dogge breeds, insofar as fishermen were the primary people on Newfoundland for centuries.
There is also some speculation that the old St. Hubert’s dog might have been brought over as well — illustrations of the breed show a black, drop-eared dog with a certain resemblance to the Labrador. But it is unknown if the fishermen going to Newfoundland would have had hound dogs used for game rather than water dogs.
We can only speculate what happened, but we do know that the cod fishermen sent out from Britain practiced “shore fishing.” Small dories were used for the actual fishing, and they worked in teams of four — two in the boat and two on the shore to prepare and cure the fish.
They would have needed a small dog to get in and out of the boat, with a short water repellent coat so as not to bring all the water into to the boats with them. They would have bred for a strong retrieving instinct to help retrieve fish and swimming lines, and a high degree of endurance to work long hours.
If the runs were heavy, the fishermen were reputed to go for as long as twenty hours to haul the fish in.
The dog developed for this early work could be found in several varieties: a smaller one for the fishing boats, and a larger one with a heavier coat for drafting.
The smaller dog has been called, variously, the Lesser St. John’s dog, the Lesser Newfoundland, or even the Labrador. These dogs came from Newfoundland; it is unknown why the name “Labrador” was chosen except possibly through geographical confusion. Charles Eley, in History of Retrievers at the end of the 19th century comments:
The story […] was that the first Labrador to reach England swam ashore from vessels which brought cod from Newfoundland […] It was claimed for them that their maritime existence […] had resulted in webbed feet, a coat impervious to water like that of an otter, and a short, thick ‘swordlike’ tail, with which to steer safely their stoutly made frames amid the breakers of the ocean.
Part of the confusion over the names is that “St. John’s dog” and “Newfoundland dog” were used interchangeably for both the greater (larger) and lesser (smaller) varieties.
And the term Labrador has also been used to refer to the lesser St. John’s dog, especially in the latter half of the 19th century. The greater is commonly held to be the direct ancestor of today’s Newfoundland, while the lesser was used to develop many of the retrieving breeds, including today’s Labrador.
The exact relationship between the two varieties of the St. Johns dog (and some 19th-century writers listed up to four varieties) is also unclear; we don’t know which came first, or to what degree they were related.
Certainly, the greater St. Johns dog was first imported to England nearly a hundred years earlier, and many contemporary and modern day writers assume that the lesser was developed from the greater but we have no real evidence one way or another.
Newfoundland has been used for fishing and other activities since approximately 1450 so there has been plenty of time for the development of the St. Johns dog and its varieties.
Development in England
From the time these dogs were first imported back to England in the early 1800s to 1885 when the combined effects of Newfoundland’s Sheep Act and Britain’s Quarantine Act shut down further importation, a handful of kennels regularly imported lesser St. Johns dogs and carefully bred them for gun dog work on their estates.
These kennels include those of Buccleugh and Malmesbury, each of which imported lesser St. John’s dogs throughout the 19th century for their private lines.
The second Earl of Malmesbury (1778-1841) and his son the third Earl (1807-1889) imported the dogs and kept their lines going until the third Earl’s death. In a letter he wrote in about 1887 he noted:
“We always called mine Labrador dogs and I have kept the breed as pure as I could from the first I had from Poole, at that time carrying on a brisk trade with Newfoundland. The real breed may be known by their having a close coat which turns the water off like oil, above all, a tail like an otter.”
At about the same time, the fifth Duke of Buccleugh (1806-1884), his brother Lord John Scott (1809-1860) and the tenth Earl of Home (1769-1841) embarked on a similar but independent program.
They lived within a 30 mile radius and developed the Buccleugh line. The eleventh Lord of Home (1799-1881) continued his dogs, but the line was nearly extinct about the time of his death.
However, a chance meeting between the third Earl of Malmesbury and the sixth Duke of Buccleugh and the twelfth Earl of Home resulted in the older Malmesbury giving the two young Lords some of the dogs from his lines.
From these dogs, given in 1882, the Buccleugh line was revitalized and the breed carried into the 20th century. Buccleugh’s Ned and Buccleugh’s Avon are generally agreed upon as being the ancestors of all Labradors.
That two different kennels, breeding independently for at least 50 years, had such similar dogs argues that the Labrador was kept very close to the original St. John’s breed.
Thus it is probable that today’s Labrador, of all the modern retrievers, is the most closely related to the original St. John’s dog and by extension, as closely related to the modern Newfoundland as to the other retriever breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Flat Coat Retrievers, etc.
The Twentieth Century
By the turn of the century, these retrievers were appearing in the British Kennel Club’s events. At this point, retrievers from the same litter could wind up being registered as different retrievers. The initial category of “Retrievers” included curly coats, flat coats, liver-colored retrievers and the Norfolk retriever (now extinct).
As types became fixed, separate breeds were created for each and the Labrador Retriever finally gained its separate registration under the Kennel Club in 1903.
While there have been strains of Labradors bred purely up to this time, it is unknown how many of these cross-bred dogs were folded into “Labradors” or into other breeds as the registrations began to separate.
Many breeders feel that crossbreeding at this time accounts for much of the poor type that can appear today; however claims about the use of Pointers or Rottweilers can probably be safely discounted.
The first two decades in the 20th century saw the formation in Britain of some of the most influential kennels that provided the basis for the breed as we know it today.
Lord Knutsford’s Munden Labradors, and Lady Howe’s Banchory Labradors are among several. At this time, many dogs distinguished themselves in both field trials and conformation shows; the high number of Dual Champions at this time attests to the breed’s versatility.
Labradors were first imported to the United States during World War I. At this point, the AKC still classified them as “Retrievers;” it was not until the late 1920’s that the retrievers were split up into the breeds we know today in the AKC.
The Labrador Retriever has been used heavily in the US as a gundog; the American Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. (LRC, Inc), is to this day primarily a field trial organization, and it was instrumental in forming the AKC field trials.
The two World Wars greatly diminished the breed in numbers (as it did many others).
After the second World War saw the rise of the Labrador Retriever in the United States, where Britain’s Sandylands kennel through imports going back to Eng CH Sandyland’s Mark influenced the shape and direction the show lines took in this country.
Other influential dogs include American Dual CH Shed of Arden, a grandson of English Dual CH Banchory Bolo, especially evident in field trial lines.
This return trip to the Americas resulted in the widely expanded use of the Labrador as a gun dog. In Britain, the Labrador was, and still is, used primarily for upland game hunting, often organized as a driven bird shoot.
Typically, separate breeds were used for different tasks; and the Labrador was strictly for marking the fall, tracking and retrieving the game.
But in the United States and Canada, the breed’s excellence at waterfowl work and game finding became apparent and the Labrador soon proved himself adaptable to the wider and rougher range of hunting conditions available.
The differences between British and American field trials are particularly illustrative.
Many old treatises and articles on gun dogs make it clear that yellows and livers were evident and even common before any recorded breeding was the rule. Spaniels, Poodles, Setters, Retrievers, and even pointers occasionally displayed yellow and liver coloring.
In fact, calling a dog “liver” one or two hundred years ago could mean any color from yellow to red to liver or brown.
In the earliest years of the Labrador, yellows were simply culled. The first registered yellow was Ben of Hyde, out of two black dogs, themselves from import stock.
Ben produced many yellows when bred to black bitches; if the genetics were the same then as now, this indicates that many blacks were actually heterozygous for black.
Oddly, his yellow littermate Juno produced few if any yellows when she was bred to blacks. However, bitches produce few puppies compared to dogs so chance probably stepped in with homozygous dominant black mates for Juno.
The anti-yellow sentiment was so strong that in the 1920’s experienced breeders reported being directed to the Golden Retriever ring! At this point, dogs of this color did suffer a wide variety of incorrect type — it’s easy to find pictures of old yellow Labradors with very houndy features.
A separate standard was briefly drawn up to address this problem, but eventually, it was felt that yellows should simply adhere to the same standard as blacks.
Today, you will find as many, if not more, yellows as blacks of the same quality. Only in some hunting circles will you still find the erroneous opinion that “blacks make better hunters.”
Chocolates, like yellows, have also been present all along in the breed. In fact, the well-known story of the origins of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever refers to an 1807 shipwreck involving two St. John’s dogs probably destined for Poole and hence to Malmesbury or Buccleugh: one black and one liver.
Some believe that the chocolate color was introduced into Labradors around the turn of the century by crossing with Pointers. This is unlikely for several reasons:
- Prior documented presence of livers in the St. John’s dogs.
- The presence of the liver color in many other closely related breeds, such as the Flat-coat, Chesapeake, and Newfoundland.
- Since the liver is recessive to black, it is perfectly possible to “hide” the gene in many generations of black, especially if the occasional liver is quietly culled.
Chocolate Labradors have gained favor much more slowly than the yellows have, although culling of them probably declined about the same time. They did well in early field trials at the turn of the century but it was not until 1964 that Britain had its first chocolate bench champion, Cookridge Tango.
Chocolates are by far the rarest color in the ring, whether show or field. They are increasing in popularity steadily, though, and in another 10 years may equal the other colors in numbers, acceptance, and quality.
Prejudice against chocolates in both show and field arenas is still widely present today. They are either “too ugly” for the show ring or “too stupid/stubborn” for the field.
The Standard is the physical “blueprint” of the breed. It describes the physical appearance and other desired qualities of the breed otherwise known as type. Some characteristics, such as size, coat quality, and movement, are based on the original (or current) function for the dog.
Other characteristics are more cosmetic such as eye color, but taken together they set this breed apart from all others. The Standard describes an ideal representative of the breed. No individual dog is perfect, but the Standard provides an ideal for the breeder to strive towards.
American Kennel Club
Australian National Kennel Club
Canadian Kennel Club
Kennel Club of Great Britain
United Kennel Club
(this list is incomplete)
Special Medical Problems
Labradors are susceptible to hip dysplasia as well as other joint problems. All breeding stock should be x-rayed and certified clear of hip dysplasia by OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) and/or by the Wind-Morgan program (see below) and/or by the PennHip methods.
Most breeders will use OFA and may optionally use Wind Morgan or PennHip as an adjunct. The breeder should be able to provide you with copies of certifications done on both sire and dam.
Labradors are also at risk for several eye problems including: PRA ( Progressive Retinal Atrophy), cataracts, and retinal dysplasia. All breeding stock should be examined annually by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist.
Most responsible breeders will turn that evaluation into CERF for tracking of various eye problems in the breed and thus have a CERF number for their dog, good for one year.
You should ask to see a copy of the paperwork that is turned in to CERF, though, because this form will report on other things that may not deny the dog a CERF number but could be of further interest.
Diagnosis of PRA is not easy. The dog may be diagnosed via an Electroretinogram (ERG), which will give advance notice by about two years from actual blindness.
However, unless PRA is known to show up early in the individual dog’s lines, it is not recommended unless the dog is at least five years old.
In addition, it is a very difficult test to administer. Not all ACVO veterinarians are qualified to do a diagnostic ERG because of the delicate skill necessary and it requires anesthesia of the dog.
Because PRA often does not appear until the dog is older (as late as 8 years or more), this disease has been difficult to eradicate.
Please, if your dog appears to be losing his sight, have him checked by a veterinary ophthalmologist, and if he is diagnosed with PRA, contact his breeder and send his pedigree, if known, to the PRA Data books (see Resources below).
Dr. Gus Aguirre has been working on identifying the genes responsible for PRA in Labradors (and other breeds; the markers for Irish Setters have already been identified) for several years now. It appears from his reports that a DNA test may be available within a few years.
You can also contact Michele Feitler of VetGen at 800-4-VETGEN FAX 313/669-8441; their research team is trying to locate the gene that causes PRA and need DNA samples from affected dogs and their families. Only with complete information can we begin to remove this problem from the breed.
Labradors are also prone to other joint problems such as OCD and arthritis. Look for breeders who not only OFA hips but also elbows or who use the Wind Morgan program in addition to OFA.
Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia (TVD)
Breeders are beginning to recognize a new problem in the Labrador breed, a defect of the heart termed Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia. After a stud dog on the west coast produced a number of young puppies dying of this disease, he was tested and found with a very mild case, detectable only through an echocardiogram, an auscultation (stethescope) exam was not adequate.
It is NOT known at present what the mode of inheritance of this disease is, or how widespread it is in the breed. Ask the breeders whether their dogs have been cleared by an echocardiogram. At the moment, very few dogs are so cleared as we know very little about this problem.
Also called “wash tail” and “limber tail”, “cold tail” occurs when your dog’s tail goes limp and he bites at it as if it were a foreign body attached to him. This condition is not serious and should go away in two or three days.
It seems to be associated with swimming in cold water (hence the name). It’s thought to be a reaction on the part of one of the glands at the base of the tail, or perhaps a sort of muscle spasm. M. Christine Zink covers the condition in Peak Performance; it is not typically listed in veterinary handbooks.
Because of their drop ears and their love of swimming, Labradors can be prone to ear infections. Not all Labs get them, but many that do can be chronic about it unless you take regular preventive steps.
It’s a good idea to check your dog’s ears regularly. You are looking for two things.
First the ear’s appearance: should be light pink or flesh-toned (yellow Labs will have pinker skin) and clean. Second, the ear’s general odor: should not smell anything from the ear or the canal.
If the ear is dirty, use a tissue or cotton ball and wipe the ear out. Because of the shape of the dog’s ear canal, you will not injure him by swabbing down there, but use only your fingers, never a Q-tip or something similar.
If your dog seems to generate a lot of waxy material, you may want to put him on regular cleaning program. You should not have to wipe out the ear very often, perhaps once a month or less, unless he’s been out swimming.
If the ear smells bad, you should take your dog into the vet to be treated for it. There are a variety of types of ear infections. Thereafter, you should clean your dog’s ears regularly to prevent further infections.
Many Lab owners commonly use a solution like the following:
- 2 tablespoons Boric Acid
- 4 oz Rubbing Alcohol
- 1 tablespoons Glycerine
Shake well. Put 1 small eyedropperfull in each ear. Rub it around first, and then let the dog shake. Do this once a week and you shouldn’t see any ear infections.
It works by raising the pH level slightly inside the ear, making it less hospitable to bacteria. This will NOT clear up an existing infection, this is a preventive remedy only.
If the dog’s ears are presently infected or sensitive, this solution may further irritate the ear tissues.
For whatever reason, Labradors appear to be especially prone to ruptured cruciate ligaments. This injury is usually sustained during some type of activity involving twisting the legs — jumping to catch an object in mid-air, for example.
Treatment involves any of a number of surgical options and extremely restricted activity for at least 6 weeks after surgery. It can take up to 6 months for performance dogs to fully rehabilitate.
Laryngeal paralysis occurs when one or both sides of thelarynx do not open and close properly. Depending on the severity of the paralysis will impede the dog’s ability to get oxygen.
This can lead to overheating, as dogs pant to cool themselves down, but a dog with laryngeal paralysis cannot pant effectively. Labs seem to develop LP mainly as a function of old age although some younger dogs come down with it.
Labs are not congenitally disposed to LP as some other breeds are, however.
The earliest sign of LP is a change to the sound of the dog’s bark and a rough sound in the breathing. To diagnose LP, the dog must be lightly anesthetized and the movement of the larynx studied.
It does take some experience to correctly diagnose this, so ask for a referral if your vet suspects LP, but has not much experience with the condition.
The only treatment for Laryngeal Paralysis is surgery to tack open at least one of the laryngeal folds. However, while oxygen is now assured to the dog, the dog is also at increased risk for aspiration pneumonia as food or water can now be more easily inhaled. LP patients are typically fed from raised bowls and prohibited from swimming in non-chlorinated water.
In addition, LP patients no longer bark normally, and sound as if they had been debarked (in fact the surgery is similar).
The other option is no treatment. Several owners report that with no treatment and careful monitoring of the dog’s condition (especially on warm days), some dogs do well for a while longer.
Discuss all possibilities with your vet, as there are varying levels of severity of LP which can factor into your decision about treatment.
Other issues to discuss with breeders are epilepsy, skin allergies and thyroid function.
Rimadyl should be administered with due caution.
Most of the major side effects (liver toxicity) to this drug have been observed in Labradors, although it is unknown if that is due to the proportion of dogs needing such medications being Labradors, or if Labs as a breed are subsceptible to it. Discuss this issue thoroughly with your vet.