The Labrador Retriever is the modern day product of an English breeding program established in the 1800’s to create the perfect working gundog. Although it is commonly believed that the modern Labrador Retriever originated in Labrador, Canada, it in fact did not. It was in actuality, its ancestor, the currently extinct St. John’s Water Dog that originated on the island of Newfoundland, now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. It was only after the importation of the St. Johns Water Dog into England and its subsequent cross-breeding with other breeds did the Labrador Retriever come about.
It is believed that direct ancestor to the Labrador Retriever, the St. John's Water Dog was developed alongside the fishing industry starting as early as the 1500’s. However, since accurate historical documentation regarding the origin of the St. Johns Water Dog does not exist, we can only examine the relevant known history and speculate as to its ancestors. Known history tells us that as early as the fifteenth century fisherman, whalers and explorers were sailing the oceans in search of areas that could be colonized or that would prove profitable. One of these was John Cabot; the Italian navigator and explorer credited with officially discovering the island of Newfoundland in 1497. Following Cabot, the next European visitors to Newfoundland were Portuguese, French, English and Spanish migratory fishermen.
It is generally agreed upon that no dogs existed on the island of Newfoundland prior to the arrival of the Europeans and if there were an indigenous canine species present there were so few that they failed to make documented history. This leaves us with the only other possibility, that the St. Johns Water Dog may have originated from a mix of dogs such as the black St. Hubert's hound of France, working water dogs from Portugal, or old European pointer breeds brought to the island by fisherman and explorers. It is certainly logical that some mixture of these or of others created the St. Johns Water dog, as fisherman, tradesmen and explorers from around the world frequented Newfoundland for several centuries prior to the development of the breed. This would have provided plenty of time to develop a working retriever breed such as the St. John's Water Dog with the desired physical abilities and working dog traits.
The St. John’s Water Dog is the antecedent of many of the modern Retrievers, to include; the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the Flat-Coated Retriever, the Golden Retriever and the focus of this article; the Labrador Retriever. It was also the founding breed of the large and gentle giant currently known as the Newfoundland dog. Medium-sized, stockily built, strong dogs, the St. Johns Water dog was closer in appearance to the modern day English Labrador Retriever than to the more popular modern day American Labrador Retriever; which is longer, taller and lighter boned. The earliest known Retriever, the St. Johns water dog had a characteristic black coat with distinctive tuxedo markings; white patches on the chest, chin, feet and muzzle. In modern Labradors this coloration will occasionally manifest itself as a small white patch on the chest in tribute to its extinct ancestor.
Much like today’s Labrador Retriever the Saint John’s Water Dog was described as an intelligent, eager to please and highly capable working dog. During the time of the fishing boom; starting with the establishment of the London and Bristol Company in 1610; ending with the 1780 declaration by then Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland, Richard Edwards; limiting legal ownership of dogs to one per household. Dogs used to retrieve fish became quite plentiful in Newfoundland and it became customary for fisherman to bring St. Johns Water Dogs or their early predecessors along as working dogs aboard fishing boats in Newfoundland. Although, the reason given for the 1780 Newfoundland Sheep Act was that limiting the number of dogs that a household could own would prevent strays from becoming a menace to sheep. It was in actuality a politically motivated move as there was quite a bit of hostility between the colonist who raised sheep and the West-of-England fishing merchants who used dogs and did not welcome the competition of permanent settlers.
Commercial fishing technology was at this time, still in its infancy. Hooks were not nearly as well made as they are today and it was quite possible for a large fish, when brought to the surface, to free itself from the hook and escape. The solution to this problem was to lower a dog from the deck using rope and a special harness to grab the fish. The dog would then be hoisted back up with the fish in its mouth. A highly versatile dog and capable swimmer, these dogs were also used when fishing from the shore with nets. When fishing from the shore, one end of a fishing net would be held ashore while a fisherman with a dog rowed a boat out from shore in a half moon pattern extending the remaining net as he went. After having released a sufficient amount of netting into the water, the dog would be handed a light line and ordered to swim back to shore with the line in its mouth. Another fisherman on shore would then take the light line, which was attached to a heavier line and so to the net and pull the net in; capturing any fish between the ends of the net.
By the early 1800’s there was high demand for quality sporting dogs in England. This was due mostly to the birth of the age of sporting arms and the pursuit of fowl that was born out of the mid 1700’s invention of the flintlock fowling piece and the early 1800’s invention of the percussion lock device. Also known at the time as the Lesser Newfoundland; the hunting and retrieving abilities of the St. John’s Water Dog; its reputation for loyalty and devotion and demand for quality sporting dogs in England opened the doors for its importation. Once on English soil, the natural physical attributes of the breed combined with its exceptional hunting and retrieving prowess made the St. Johns Water Dog very popular among the aristocrats of large estates and other well-to-do Englishmen that could afford to have them imported from Canada. Wanting to preserve this wonderfully capable breed of dog on English soil, these same large estate owners and well-to-do Englishman established breeding programs to complement their shooting and further the development of the breed.
A testament to the high regard in which these dogs were held was provided by the wildfowler (waterfowl hunter) and one of the most respected shooters of his time, Colonel Hawker. Mr. Hawker, the owner of a schooner, which regularly sailed between Poole and Newfoundland is quoted as saying the following in 1830, when comparing the Labrador dogs with the Newfoundland dogs:
“(The Labrador is) by far the best for any kind of shooting, he is generally black and no bigger than a pointer, very fine in legs, with short smooth hair and does not carry his tail so much curled as the other; is extremely quick running, swimming and fighting … chiefly used on the native coast by fishermen, Their sense of smell is hardly to be credited; in finding wounded game there is not a living equal in the canine race.”
During the height of their importation into England, a period lasting from the late 1700’s through British Quarantine Act of 1895 which made further importation next to impossible. There were only a small number of kennels that regularly imported the St. John’s Water Dog for breeding. The most notable were the kennels of Buccleugh and Malmesbury, each of which managed to continually import St. John’s Water Dogs throughout the 19th century for inclusion in their private lines. The Malmesbury Kennel, named for the Earls of Malmesbury and the Buccleugh Kennels, named for the Dukes of Buccleuch were instrumental in developing, refining and establishing the modern Labrador breed in 19th century England.
James Edward Harris, 2nd Earl of Malmesbury (1778–1841) was the first major player in the establishment of the modern day Labrador Retriever. Living in southern England, only 4 miles from the Port of Poole, it is said that the Second Earl of Malmesbury saw a St. John’s Water Dog working on a fishing boat from Newfoundland and was so impressed, that he made arrangements to have a few of them imported to his private estate in England. As an avid sportsman, he is said to have fallen in love with their hunting and retrieving ability and that he then devoted a large portion of his life from that point on to developing and stabilizing the breed. His status as an Earl and proximity to the Port of Poole allowed him to import the foundation dogs for his strain of Labrador Retriever directly from Newfoundland. The 2nd Earl is reported to have used imported St. John’s Water Dogs as early as 1809 for shooting sports, such as duck hunting on his private estate of Heron Court (known today as Malmesbury Hall). His son, James Howard Harris, 3rd Earl of Malmesbury (1807–1889) also became involved and together they imported and bred these remarkable dogs on their private estate.
While the 2nd and 3rd Earls were engaged in their Labrador breeding program in England, the 5th Duke of Buccleuch, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, (1806 – 1884), his brother Lord John Douglas Montague Scott (1809–1860) and Alexander Home, 10th Earl of Home (1769–1841) were working cooperatively on their own Labrador breeding program and by the 1830’s had established a Labrador kennel in Scotland. Together, this trio, all living within 30 miles of each other, worked to develop the Buccleugh line of Labradors. The St. John’s dogs used in this Labrador breeding program most likely came from Tyne or Tweedmouth on the Northeast coast of England or from Greenock Harbor in Scotland.
Also around this time, it is believed that the fifth Duke of Buccleugh became the first person to use the name “Labrador” in reference to the breed. When, in an 1839 letter detailing the events of a yacht trip to Naples with the 10th Lord Home, he makes mention of his Labrador “Moss” and of the Lord of Home’s Labrador “Drake” accompanying them during the trip. This is not to say that he invented the word as the origin of the word “Labrador” in reference to the homeland for which the dog is named in Labrador and Newfoundland is a matter of some speculation. It is suggested that the name comes from either the Spanish word for workers, “Labradores” or the Portuguese word for yeoman or laborer, “Lavradores”, or possibly the village of Castro Laboreiro in Portugal which has herding and guard dogs of similar appearance to the Labrador. Regardless of the origin of the name or who was the first to use it, we do know that it was not used widely to describe the breed until the 1870’s and beyond.
The 5th Duke of Buccleuch and his brother Lord John Scott imported a number of dogs to stock their kennel. The most notable of which was a female dog named “Nell” who is touted as being the “first Labrador” or “first Saint John’s Water Dog” to be photographed depending upon which breed you are researching. The photograph which was taken in 1856, shows Nell, at twelve years peacefully lying down outside. Thus at this time in history the two breeds were still basically considered one in the same. There is also an entertaining story about a dog named “Brandy” that was imported by Lord John Scott. While being transported across the Atlantic, the dog apparently went overboard in rough seas to retrieve the cap of one of the crew. Due to the rough seas, it took the crew nearly two hours to position themselves where they could rescue the dog and haul it back on board. After finally getting the dog back aboard ship, it was so exhausted from its ordeal that it appeared lifeless; one of the crew members then decided to use the alcoholic beverage ‘Brandy’ to revive the dog – to which it responded well and from which it received its name.
Like the Earls of Malmesbury, the Buccleuch breeding program also became a family affair when the son of the 5th Duke and son and grandson of the Earl of Home became involved alongside their fathers. In describing how the Labrador came to be in England, a newspaper called the Country House printed the following in an article dated May, 1869:
“Sixty or seventy years ago there was considerable trade between Poole in Dorset and Labrador, and it is a fact that by these trading vessels the breed (Labradors) was first brought to England and that excellent sportsman, the then Earl of Malmesbury, became possessed of them. So highly was he pleased was he with their work, especially in water, that he kept them until his death. About that time, or perhaps a little later, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Home (who died in 1841) and Lord John Scott imported some from Labrador. They were kept pure for many years.”
In 1841, the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury died, at which point his son the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury took over and kept the kennel going. His decision to continue operation in the absence of his father proved to be very fortunate for the modern day Labrador. When a meeting between the third Earl of Malmesbury, and the 6th Duke of Buccleuch, William Henry Walter Montagu Douglas Scott, (1831 – 1914) , and the 12th Earl of Home, Charles Alexander Douglas-Home, (1834–1918) resulted in the much older Earl of Malmesbury giving the two younger Lords a few of the dogs from his lines.
The two young Lords, Buccleuch and Home had spent some winters shooting at Heron Court in Bournemouth during the early 1880's and were amazed with the abilities and work ethic of Lord Malmesbury's dogs, especially in water. These were from the same St. John’s Water Dog bloodlines their father had built his kennel on at Langholm Lodge in Scotland. They were so impressed with these dogs, that the now 75 year old 3rd Earl of Malmesbury, offered a few of his dogs to them for inclusion into their own breeding program. Malmesbury stated that from the beginning he had always kept the blood lines as pure as he possibly could when importing dogs from Newfoundland. The dogs given included “Ned” (Malmesbury's Sweep x M, Juno) - born in 1882 and “Avon” (Malmesbury's Tramp x M, Juno)- born in 1885. Buccleugh's Ned and Buccleugh's Avon, as they would come to be known are generally accepted today as being the two founding sires and ancestors of all modern Labradors. All of the Buccleuch Labradors trace back to these two dogs.
Even though the two separate Kennels of the Malmesbury’s and Buccleuch’s had bred their own lines independently for at least 50 years, the similarities between their dogs, suggests that the Labrador was kept very close to the original St. John’s Water Dog standard. Thus it is likely that the Labrador of today is the most closely related of all the modern retrievers to the original St. John’s Water dog.
In 1889 the 3rd Earl of Malmesbury passed away, and shortly thereafter his kennels followed suit; leaving only the Buccleuch Labradors to carry on the breed. In a letter written in 1887, from the 3rd Earle of Malmesbury to the 6th Duke of Buccleuch we find the reason that the 3rd Earl is most commonly given credit for being the first to affix the name Labrador to the breed when he wrote the following:
“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 coarse coat which turns the water off like oil, above all, a tail like an otter.”
Prior to his death, the dogs belonging to Lord Malmesbury were described as follows:
“Small, compact and very active; their coats were short, thick and smooth with sometimes a brown tinge at certain seasons, The eyes of most were in colour, something like burnt sugar. Their heads, which were not big, were broad and the skull shapely and not long in muzzle, Their bright countenances denoted their sweet tempers and high courage.”
It is important to note that the period of time, starting with the 1780 Newfoundland Sheep Act and ending with the British Quarantine Act of 1895 was of extreme importance to the overall development of the Labrador Retriever as we know it today. As previously stated the Newfoundland's Sheep Act limited legal ownership of dogs to one per household and since the St. John’s Water dog was native to Newfoundland, all but those that had been previously exported to England were vulnerable. This was the first of a series of acts that would begin the slow extinction of the Saint John’s Water Dog; thereby decreasing the number of dogs available for inclusion into the English breeding programs. The next major blow to available Labrador Retriever breeding stock came in the form of the Sheep Protection Act of 1885; which imposed a heavy tax on all dogs in Newfoundland. The tax rate for females was considerably higher than it was for males, which led to many female pups being destroyed at birth.
Also in the 1880's, trade with Newfoundland had basically ceased and with it the importation of Labradors. Additionally around the same time 135 districts within Newfoundland decided to completely ban the keeping of all dogs. Lastly the British Quarantine Act of 1895, which was designed to prevent the introduction of rabies into the country raised the importation fees and required imported dogs to undergo a strict six month quarantine before being allowed entry. The effect of these acts was the eventual extinction of the Saint John’s Water Dog and almost total destruction of the breed in its homeland of Newfoundland and by the 1930’s the St. John's dog had become quite rare in Newfoundland. However, there were a few to be found in the more remote areas and five were purchased and brought back to Scotland.
The first part of the 1900’s saw the popularity of the Labrador Retriever rise rapidly as they proved their worth and skill at various field trials and Kennel Club events. Although, at this point in time “Retriever” was still a blanket term that included flat coated, curly coated, liver-colored, Norfolk Retrievers (now extinct) or any other dog of mixed Retriever breeding. It was even possible for two dogs from the same litter to end up being registered as two different types of Retriever. In 1903 the Kennel Club of Great Britain recognized the breed as a distinct and unique type. However, in England no Labrador could become a conformation champion unless he also had a working dog title establishing that he is fully qualified in the field as well.
In 1916, the first Labrador Retriever breed club was formed at the Ladies Kennel Association rooms on Regent Street in London, by a group of very influential Labrador owners and breeders; all of whom were concerned with protecting the development of the pure bred Labrador Retriever. The “Labrador Retriever Club” (LRC), which still survives to current day, was formed in response to the constant problem of the Kennel Club (UK) allowing dogs of mixed retriever breeding to be registered under whatever breed the owner wished; a situation that had begun to create problems, especially in the show ring. Respected Labrador breeder and competitor, R. Anderton, provided a good description of one such event in an article for the Our Dogs Newspaper of 1932, which read as follows:
"It was about 1915 (sic.) when a very handsome two year old dog, Horton Max, won a number of firsts at Crufts, and was awarded the Certificate. An examination of the dog's pedigree showed that his sire was a pure bred Flatcoated Retriever named Beechgrove Peter. According to the rule then existing, such was in order, and it could not be gainsaid that in appearance Max was a very correct and typical Labrador. Without any particular feeling against either the dog, or his popular owner, most of the experienced breeders who were present, thought that such a state of affairs was wrong, and a meeting was called which almost everyone then interested in Labradors, attended. This crowded meeting voiced a petition to the Kennel Club to so change the rule that none but Labradors might compete in Labrador classes, a change which duly came about by a simple alteration in the conditions of registration."
The first two decades of the 20th century brought with it the creation of some of the most successful and influential Labrador kennels in Britain. Kennels such as Lord Knutsford's Munden Labradors and Lady Howe's Banchory Labradors would go on to produce the dogs that would help shape the breed as we know it today. It was during this time that many of these early Labrador Retrievers demonstrated the breeds high degree of versatility by distinguishing themselves in both field trials and conformation shows; a fact that is substantiated by the high number of dog to be recognized as Dual Champions during this time.
It was during the First World War (1914–1918) that Labrador Retrievers officially made their debut in the United States where they were known as “English Labradors”. However, there is some controversy surrounding the actual names and dates of registration for the first Labrador Retriever with the American Kennel Club (AKC). The AKC states that it recognized its first Labrador Retriever in 1917; a female Labrador Retriever from Scotland named Brocklehirst Floss. The Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. (LRC, Inc), which was formed in 1931 and is the parent club of the breed in the United States agrees with the year of 1917 but asserts that the first dog to be registered with the AKC was actually named Brocklehirst Nell. While Ky Moffet a long time breeder of what he describes as “Old-fashioned classic Labs” and owner of Longplain Kennels; a kennel with 46 UKC Champions to its credit claims that both the AKC and LRC, Inc. got it wrong. That the first Labrador Retriever to be registered with the AKC was actually named Virginia Vennie and that it was done in 1914. An assertion that is explained in the following excerpt from the Longplain Kennels website:
“Brocklehirst Floss (full sister to Kinmount Dan […]) is usually credited as "the first Labrador recorded by the American Kennel Club," having been registered in 1917. However this is not true -- she was in fact the third that can be positively identified by the stud book records. (There may have been several Labradors before that, or more likely Labrador/Flatcoat interbreds, but they cannot be clearly determined from the pedigree records.) The first definite Labrador registered with AKC was Virginia Vennie, and the second was Virginia Myra, both recorded in 1914. Virginia Vennie has no recorded offspring, but many of the very early working lines trace to a breeding between Virginia Myra and Tony of Whitmore (full brother to the dam of Toi of Whitmore, sire to Tad of Whitmore and grandsire to CH Raffles of Earlsmoor). Warwick [Helen Warwick, author of, The Complete Labrador Retriever] credits Brocklehirst Nell as the first Labrador registered by AKC, but so far as can be ascertained by the stud book records, this bitch never came to America at all!!”
Regardless of which Labrador Retriever actually gets to claim the honor of being the first registered with the American Kennel Club, we do know that at the time the AKC classified the breed much the same way that it had been classified in England; under the blanket term “Retriever”. A practice that would continue through the late 1920’s; when the “Retrievers” were officially split into and the individual breeds that we recognize today. We also know that prior to the introduction of the Labrador Retriever, the American Sportsman commonly used Setters and Pointers for hunting over the vast expanse of land and areas of heavy cover common to the United States. The reason being that in America, the larger hunting area, harsh terrain, cover and the variety of land types encountered while hunting made it practical to have multiple dogs available to fulfill different hunting roles. The Springer Spaniel would typically be used as a game finder for upland work, while the Chesapeake Bay Retriever would be used for retrieval duties in water. Although this system of using multiple dogs for hunting based on the terrain was effective, it was not necessarily efficient.
However, inefficient as it may have been it worked and for that reason the Labrador Retriever or “English Labrador” as it was known was largely ignored as a hunting dog prospect here in America until the late 1920’s and beyond. American Bird Hunters prior to that felt that the dogs used for bird hunting in England would be unsuitable for use in America, as the hunting style, environment and terrain were very different. The belief was that dogs that had been specifically bred to complement the British driven bird hunting style; a style that consisted of keeping the dogs in close (walking them at the heel), watching for birds that have been shot to fall and only then sending the dog to track and retrieve it, would have been unsuitable for use in America where the dogs were allowed more independence from the hunter to flush game and retrieve on their own.
However, with the first few imports of Labrador Retrievers into America it became apparent that the breed possessed all the skills necessary to complement the American style of hunting. The Labrador Retriever showed that it was as good for putting up game as a Springer Spaniel and with its water repellent coat that naturally avoided icing up in cold water, and natural retrieving abilities; better than a Chesapeake Bay Retriever for use as a water dog.
Although the breed was very capable, it only received limited exposure and in 1923 there were still only 23 registered Labrador Retrievers with the AKC. This lack of exposure changed in 1928, when Franklin B. Lord; an importer of Labrador Retrievers from Lorna Howe of England's Banchory Kennels wrote an article for the AKC magazine the “American Kennel Gazette”. His article titled “Meet the Labrador Retriever” exposed this very versatile all around sporting dog with an excellent disposition to the hunting sportsman of America. To this day this single article is credited with helping to jump start the breeds popularity in America. It led Americans to really take notice of the Labrador Retriever; a breed that combined the skills of and was more effective than, the most popular bird hunting dogs being used in America at the time.
The popularity of the breed continued to rise throughout the 1930’s as more Labrador Retrievers were imported into the United States for use as gundogs where they would become the foundation of the American Labrador. This was also a time of immigration for people, as these newly imported dogs were often times trained for field work by Scotsmen that had immigrated to America and had experience and skill training their native retrievers for use as gundogs. Initially bred only for use as a shooting dog and to compete among the top breeds in retriever trials, fanciers of the breed soon began to breed the American Labrador Retriever for conformation, temperament and type as well. This allowed them to enter their working field dogs in the conformation show ring and be competitive.
The breed was becoming so popular in America that the first dog to appear on the cover of Life Magazine was a black Labrador Retriever called ‘Blind of Arden’ in the December, 12th, 1938 issue. A four year old Labrador Retriever owned by W. Averell Harriman, this champion retriever had won the top US Retriever stake that same year.
During the Second World War (September 1939 - May 1945) the total number of Labrador Retrievers diminished greatly, as did a number of other breeds. However, following the Second World War the number of Labrador Retrievers in the United States once again increased dramatically. Gwen Broadley and her Sandylands Kennel of Britain were instrumental in rebuilding the post war show line Labrador Retrievers in America, while simultaneously shaping and influencing the direction that show lines of Labrador Retrievers took in America. Eng CH Sandylands’s Mark, appears in the pedigrees of many modern day American Labrador Retrievers. In America Post World War II, the popularity of Labrador Retrievers continued to rise over the next 40 years as these dogs consistently proved their versatility by succeeding not only as sporting and show dogs, but as outstanding and loving pets as well.
However, by the late 1980’s it became evident that the Official Standard for the Labrador Retriever as was originally adapted from the English standard and set forth by the American Kennel Club many years before had begun to create problems within the breed and discontent among breeders of bench (show dogs) and field Labrador Retrievers. The breeders of both types believing that their interpretation of the standard was the correct interpretation and that the dogs of the other were incorrect. A correctly written breed standard should set forth the parent clubs official description as to what constitutes an ideal specimen for a breed, while at the same time clearly defining the judging criterion for dogs of that breed. Many Labrador Retriever breeders and members of the Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. during this time felt that the standard in use was ambiguous.
Since the standard was first adopted, show breeders had become accustomed to breeding and selecting their Labradors based on conformation, while breeders of field Labradors had bred solely for performance by placing a higher emphasis on attributes such as speed and endurance. Although both types, met the standard as it was written, depending upon how it was interpreted the physical disparity between bench Labradors and field Labradors was readily apparent and ever increasing. So much so that there was a very real possibility that the Labrador was destined; like the Cocker Spaniel, Irish Setter and Springer Spaniel to exist as two separate breeds; one for field and one for show.
In order to prevent this from happening, members of the parent club drafted a new standard that aimed to remove the ambiguity of the original one and more clearly define what a Labrador Retriever should look like. In November of 1992, this new and improved standard was accepted by a majority of members of the parent club and subsequently approved and instituted by the AKC. Still the subject of much controversy, some feel that this new standard, instead of unifying the breed as it was intended too, only served to create animosity between the breeders of both types of Labrador and may in actuality end up increasing the gap between the two. If its intent was to unify the breed, its effect was only minimal as today we still have a variety of different Labrador Retrievers such as American Labs, English Labs, Field Labs, Water Labs, and Show Labs.
Variations aside, as of 2010, the Labrador Retriever is recognized as the most popular dog in America, sitting in first place on the AKC's list of most popular dog breeds. A versatile, intelligent and resilient dog with a strong work ethic they can be found fulfilling a variety of roles in today's society. The modern Labrador is no longer just a hunting, tracking or show dog. They also perform detection work for police (bombs, narcotics, counterfeit items etc.), as disabled assistance dogs, as therapy dogs, as guide dogs, and in any other role requiring an intelligent, capable breed of its size that is eager to please.
A robust working dog and natural athlete, the Labrador Retriever is a medium to large sized, strongly built and versatile dog with the physical soundness and endurance to work long hours under difficult conditions. A fairly compact dog with a well muscled trunk; males stand 22½ to 24½ inches at the withers while females are 21½ to 23½ inches with desired weights of 65 to 80 pounds for males and 55 to 70 pounds for females. A squarely built dog, the length from the point of the shoulder to the point of the rump for a Labrador Retriever should be equal to or just slightly longer than the distance from the withers to the ground. Likewise the distance from the elbow to the ground should equal one half of the distance from the ground to the withers, with the brisket (lower chest) extending down to the level of the elbow. A properly built Labrador Retriever in working condition should appear athletic, balanced, well-muscled and without excess fat. Dogs that are rangy, excessively tall, those that are leggy in appearance; or so excessively muscled as to appear cloddy or lumbering are not to be desired.
The head of a Labrador Retriever should be in proportion to the overall size of the body. It should not be wedge-shaped, or long and narrow in muzzle and back skull, nor should it be massive with overly defined full cheeks. The skull is wide and well developed but not overly exaggerated with a moderate stop. The external occipital protuberance and the occipital crest in adult Labrador Retrievers should not be overly pronounced. The muzzle, as with the majority of other Labrador features is all about moderation; it should be neither long and narrow nor short and stubby. The jaws are powerful with teeth that meet in a scissors bite; meaning the lower teeth lie just behind, but touching the inner side of the upper incisors. The wide nose with well developed nostrils should be black on black or yellow dogs, and brown on those of chocolate color. The ears of a Labrador Retriever are set back and low on the skull, just slightly above eye level and the length is such that they should reach to the inside of the eye when pulled forward. Well proportioned, the ears should not be excessively large and heavy nor should the leathers be overly thick. The medium sized eyes should be well spaced apart, and of moderate set; not to deep and not to shallow. When viewing a Labrador Retriever the eyes are friendly, not harsh or overly serious; the eyes impart upon the viewer the good temperament, intelligence and alertness that have become the hallmark of the breed. Eye color should be brown in black and yellow Labradors, and brown or hazel in chocolate colored Labradors.
Moderately arched and muscular, but not short, heavy or thick, the neck of the Labrador Retriever should rise strongly from the shoulder and be of sufficient length to allow the dog to retrieve downed game easily. The chest should be of correct proportion so as to provide the dog with unrestricted forelimb movement. The dog should not have a barrel or bulldog like chest, nor should the chest be overly narrow which would give the appearance of hollowness between the front legs. The long and sloping shoulders are well laid-back and form an angle with the upper arm of approximately 90 degrees. This provides the dog with the ability to move its forelegs in an effortless manner while taking advantage of its strong forward reach. The straight front legs should be of sufficient thickness to complement the overall conformation of the dog; legs that are too heavily boned are as undesirable as frail legs that are too lightly boned. When viewing the dog from the side the legs should be perpendicular to the ground and well under the body placing the elbows so that they lie directly under the withers.
There should be no slope to the back and the topline from withers to croup should be level leading to broad, muscular and well developed Labrador hindquarters. When viewing the dog from the rear the hind legs are straight, parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. Like the front legs, the hind legs should be boned in proportion to the overall conformation of the dog and in such a way as to complement the dogs performance abilities and durability. The feet are strong and compact, with well-arched toes and sufficiently cushioned, thick, well-developed pads. Feet that are splayed, resemble that of a hare, knuckle over or turn either in or out are highly undesirable and considered to be serious faults. A distinguishing feature of the breed, the medium length "otter" tail should be thick at the base while gradually tapering toward the tip. The length of the tail should not allow it to extend beyond the hock. It is the tail that completes the balance of the Labrador by giving it a uniform flowing line from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.
Another trademark feature of the Labrador Retriever is its short, dense, weather resistant double coat. The outer coat is short, straight and very dense making it feel relatively coarse or hard to the hand. The dense weather-resistant undercoat is soft and provides the dog with protection from water, cold and all types of ground cover. The only acceptable coat colors for a Labrador Retriever are black, yellow and chocolate. Any other color or combination of colors is highly undesirable and would merit instant disqualification in the show ring. Although not desirable, a small white spot on the chest similar to that of its Saint John’s Water dog ancestors is acceptable. Black Labrador Retrievers are too be black, while Yellow Labradors may range in color from fox-red to a light cream, with variations in shading on the ears, back and under parts of the dog. Chocolate Labradors may be of any shade from light to dark chocolate.
Created, adopted and promoted by the Labrador Club of America, Inc. the above breed standard has not succeeded in unifying the breed or making a single Labrador of uniform appearance that can fulfill all of its required duties. Today there are quite a few different types of Labrador Retriever actively being bred and promoted to fulfill a variety of niche roles, and each type tends to have its own desirable physical attributes that may deviate from the published standard to a large degree.
An intelligent, loyal and loving working breed that is eager to please; the Labrador Retriever has much that appeals to people. Wonderful family dogs, their reputation for being patient and even tempered with other animals and children of all ages has made them one of the most popular breeds of dog in the world. As a breed, Labradors tend to be adventurous and curious of the world around them. Combine this with their naturally amiable nature and high desire for food and you get a dog that is prone to wandering off. This is the reason that so many Labrador Retrievers seem to vanish or otherwise become separated from their owner with little warning; perhaps they were following the interesting scent of food, a nice person, or just exploring for the sake of it. Their amiable nature and popularity also make them one of the most likely dogs to be kept and not returned if found by a stranger. This is why it is always advisable to not only have your Labrador Retriever microchipped, but to follow up by completing and submitting your information to all available microchip registries.
An energetic breed designed to work, Labradors do require regular exercise to stay fit, happy, and stave off boredom. Although they are a large breed of dog, when properly and regularly exercised they tend to be fine with apartment life. This is a breed that will require training from a young age to help channel that energy in the desired direction to avoid developing the destructive behaviors associated with boredom or frustration. Labradors also tend to mature later than many other breeds. It is not uncommon for a Labrador Retriever to keep its puppy energy and enthusiasm well into three years of age before showing signs of slowing down, maturing and mellowing out. For many owners it can be quite problematic having an 85 pound dog racing around the house with boundless energy and enthusiasm.
This is another reason that training, particularly leash training should be started very early in the life of a Labrador. Early training will provide the owner with the ability to control the dog in the future when it is much larger and considerably stronger but has the same high amount of energy. It is important that owners of this breed keep training fun and entertaining as the high level of intelligence possessed by this breed means that although they are eager to please, they can grow bored rather quickly with an overly monotonous training regimen. This breed will not tolerate overly harsh correction or owners that are excessively physical; they will shut down, become mistrustful, or downright refuse to comply with the wishes of an overbearing owner.
While Labrador Retrievers typically do not excel as "guard dogs", they do tend to be good "watch dogs" and will readily bark or sound the alarm at strange things that go bump in the night. As a breed they are not prone to nuisance barking, but when excited or happy can be very vocal with their owners.
Labrador Retrievers are eaters and love food. This makes them prone to obesity and accidental poisoning as many Labrador Retrievers will readily and indiscriminately eat any item it can fit in its mouth. This may include items that are digestible, non digestible and items that are poisonous, corrosive or that could cause internal blockages. It is important that owners of this breed, especially during puppy stages ensure that items like batteries, coins, magnets, toxins, poisons etc. are secured in an area that the dog cannot access. It is also important for owners of adult Labrador Retrievers to carefully control the amount of food the dog is allowed to intake to avoid obesity and its associated health problems.
An intelligent breed; ranking seventh in Stanley Coren's book "The Intelligence of dogs", Labrador Retrievers are also versatile and eager to please which makes them ideally suited for search and rescue, detection, and therapy work as well as hunting and retrieving.
Although, they are energetic and adventurous this is not a breed that is known for jumping fences or digging out to escape. However, as an intelligent pack oriented breed that loves to please and be with its human companions, dogs that are left alone, extensively crated, or kept as yard dogs are prone to destructive behaviors as well as becoming master escape artists.
Labrador Retrievers are shedders that tend to shed their hair twice annually; especially in areas with clearly distinguishable seasons. Owners of this breed seem to agree that a Labrador Retriever can quite literally leave its entire coat on the floor when they shed; typically during the spring and fall. In areas with a more temperate climate Labradors will typically shed continuously throughout the year. As a heavy shedder, Labrador Retrievers can be hard on vacuum cleaners or those with pet related allergies. That being said, it is possible to reduce the shedding, and keep the coat healthy with regular preventative maintenance by brushing with a slicker or bristle brush.
These brushes allow you to removes dead hair from the coat while at the same time helping to evenly distribute the natural oils of the coat. For dogs that shed seasonally, during the non shedding season it may only be necessary to brush the dog once a week to remove any dead hair. However, in the spring and fall while shedding it may be necessary to brush the dog everyday or multiple times a day to keep the shedding under control. For those dogs that live in a more temperate climate that tend to shed a little year round, it will be up to the owner to determine how frequently brushing should be performed to keep shedding at an acceptable level.
Labrador Retriever grooming is all about establishing a routine and making sure that you are on top of the situation. Fail to maintain a consistent grooming schedule or slack off for a few weeks and you can expect to find huge piles of hair all over the place. The best practice is to brush the dog a little bit each day, not only will this help maintain the coat, but it is a great way to create an emotional bond with the dog.
Like most pure breeds of dog, the Labrador Retriever is prone to certain congenital health defects; a problem that is being exacerbated by the Labrador Retrievers current status as the most popular dog breed in America. The lovable, friendly and eager to please personality of the Labrador Retriever that made it such a popular dog to own has also made it a very profitable dog to breed and sell. There are many individuals, on both the smaller and larger scale that see breeding Labrador Retrievers as a quick way to make money. It’s the simple economics of supply and demand; as such a popular breed, the demand is currently outstripping supply. This almost guarantees that Labrador Retriever breeders will be able to sell their puppies quickly (which cuts down on holding costs) and at a premium. This has resulted in a surge in not only the number of puppy mills that crank out hundreds upon hundreds of Labrador Retriever puppies each year but also the number of backyard breeders hoping to make some quick cash; both of which produce puppies that may or may not be of sound body or temperament.
Since Labrador Retrievers are typically a cash crop to these individuals, they tend to care very little about preserving the health, intelligence or stamina of the breed. They are more interested in how quickly they can sell a litter of puppies and how much money they will make in the process. It is this puppy mill mentality that has made many congenital defects considerably more acute and life altering for dogs unfortunate enought to be affected by them. If you are interested in acquiring a Labrador Retriever puppy, ensure that you seek out a licensed, reputable and experienced breeder that is willing to provide not only a health guarantee for the puppies they sell, but has had all breeding stock genetically screened and cleared genetic problems before breeding. It is generally advisable to start your search for a puppy with the parent club for the breed. Breed clubs typically have a code of ethics that requires breeders to adhere to a certain standard. While this won’t guarantee that you get a perfect Labrador Puppy, its considerably better than playing Russian Roulette with potential health problems by purchasing from puppy mills, pet stores or back yard breeders.
The average life expectancy of a Labrador Retriever is 10-12 years and the following congenital or inherited health defects have been reported in the breed: