Well, this post took a lot longer than I thought to put together. More than 3 hours! Here it is.
This week we’re taking a look at the most popular dog breed in the USA more than 4 years running, the Labrador Retriever, also known as the Lab. Plus, my Coco baby was a Chocolate Lab and, because of her, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Labs and their happy-go-lucky personalities.
The Labrador Retriever originated in Newfoundland and was originally known as St. John’s Dog, St. John’s Water Dog, or as the Lesser Newfoundland. Though the origins of the St. John’s Dog isn’t known, they’re believed to have descended from a mix of English, Irish, and Portuguese working breeds. The Greater Newfoundland, which is the ancestor of the modern Newfoundland, is believed to be descended from a mix of long-coated St. John’s Dogs and Mastiffs.
The shorter-coated St. John’s Dog was later named the Labrador or Labrador Retriever after the geographical region known as “the Labrador” and for their frequent use as waterfowl retrievers in the Labrador Sea.
Due to selective breeding for different purposes, there are some distinctions between the Labs bred for field work and those bred for show and conformation. These two distinct “types” of Labs are often mislabeled as “American” and “English” respectively, but the two “types” are actually bred in both the USA and the UK. They are more accurately referred to as “Field” and “Show” or “Conformation” Labs.
Field Labs, as one can imagine, were bred specifically for their skills in hunting, tracking, and retrieving. As such, they tend to have longer legs, a more trim build, slimmer faces, and longer noses. These traits are not, however, required for a Labrador Retriever to be trained as a hunting or retrieving dog. Labs are very versatile and can both work in the field and compete in the show ring.
Show Labs were bred more for conformation and temperament. They, therefore, tend to have broader heads, shorter noses, stockier bodies, and shorter legs than their Field counterparts. They also tend to have a more laid-back, mellow temperament and are more often the ones chosen to be family companions for this reason. This, however, does not mean they cannot be trained to work in the field.
Labradors have a very sweet nature and do well with all ages of people and animals. They are outgoing and friendly, which makes them terrible watchdogs but wonderful family dogs. Their eagerness to please makes them easy to train, even for first-time dog owners, though their exuberance and energy can be challenging to contend with if they’re not given enough exercise. The level of energy among Labs, however, can vary greatly. Some are more laid-back while others seem to have boundless energy that no amount of exercise can drain. This variation in energy level is actually an advantage, in my opinion. It means that Labs can go to very active, hiking and camping and fishing on the weekends type of families as well as the more laid-back, stay in and watch movies type of families. It’s only a matter of finding the right level of energy in the puppy or dog one chooses to purchase or adopt.
The trait that is one of the biggest draws of the breed and a common trait among them is their devotion to their people. Labs are loyal, people-oriented dogs who live to please and will do most anything for those they love.
Another trait common among Labs is their love of food. They love, love, love to eat! Sometimes that even extends to non-food items. As such, inappropriate chewing can sometimes be an issue, though it is something that can be trained out of them. One way to curb inappropriate chewing is by substituting something they shouldn’t be chewing on with something they can chew on, like bully sticks, chew toys, raw meaty bones, and dried pig ears and feet.
Their love of food can present another problem – obesity. This epidemic is especially common in Labrador Retrievers, and not just because they love to eat. The POMC gene, which plays a large part in appetite regulation as well as indication of the amount of one’s stored fat, is missing in part or in whole in the majority of Labrador Retrievers. The lack of this gene contributes greatly to weight gain and the large, seemingly endless appetite in the Labrador breed. For this reason, food portions should be regulated, treats kept to a minimum, and exercise engaged in often. A healthy Lab should be able to do swimming wind sprints for two hours and should have a very slight hourglass-type shape.
As retrievers, Labs love to fetch things, whether that be a dead waterfowl, a stick, or a ball. This love of retrieving can quite easily develop into obsession, though that can be mitigated with the proper training. It can also cause them to fetch well beyond their limits. My Coco baby would fetch, literally, until she dropped. We never had her run that long, but from the way she would just go and go and go and not even stop for water or a brief rest (as Luna will), we knew she would keep going until her energy was completely depleted. Because of this, we were always careful about how long we had her fetch for us and would make sure to get her to drink plenty of water afterward.
How about we just remember that Labs don’t regulate well, in what or how much they eat or in how much they retrieve, okay?
What they do do well in is jobs, and a variety at that! They not only retrieve for hunters, they also work well as therapy dogs, guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for the disabled, cart-pulling dogs, search and rescue dogs, tracking and detection dogs, police dogs, and military dogs. They excel in many dog sports, as well, thanks to their powerful, athletic build and energetic nature. Labs often compete, and compete very well, in agility, flyball, frisbee, conformation, and obedience competitions.
Due to their curious and exploratory nature, Labrador Retrievers can be, and often are, escape artists. They want to know what that noise was or where that smell is coming from and what it is or they want attention from those people walking by or a bite of the food they’re carrying! Many breeders and Labrador rescues promote micro-chipping for this reason, so an escaped Lab can be identified and returned to their owner when and if they’re found. One way to keep a Lab inside their enclosure is to make sure they’re kept entertained with plenty of toys and that they’re exercised, both mentally and physically, often. A bored Lab will seek something interesting to do, and that interesting something may well be outside of their owner’s “secure” fence. (Nothing is secure enough when you own an escape artist!)
Labs have a double coat, a softer, denser, weather-resistant undercoat, and a straight, short, and thick outer coat. This double layer coat protects Labs from the cold and wet. Their water-resistant coat and the webbing between their toes that allows them to be such excellent swimmers makes them a quite highly sought-after retriever. The webbing can also act as a snowshoe in colder climates, preventing the build up of ice between their toes, which can be especially painful for dogs without webbing.
The coat typically comes in three colors – black, chocolate, and yellow. Some breeders sell “rare” colored Labs such as “polar white” and “fox red,” but these are really just variations of the yellow Lab. There are also Labs sold as purebred silver Labrador Retrievers, but there’s dispute about the purity of their bloodline. Most “silver” Labs aren’t allowed to be registered as purebred Labrador Retrievers, although the Kennel Club of the UK allows them to be registered as “Non-recognized.”
Sometimes Labs will exhibit some amount of white fur on their chest, paws, or tail or they may have a small amount of brindling or tan points similar to a Rottweiler. These traits disqualify them from the show ring, but play no role in the dogs’ temperament or working ability.
These dogs can be, quite literally, for anyone. I say can be because, like people, dogs have different temperaments, personalities, and energy levels, and even though Labs can be for anyone, it depends greatly upon an individual Lab’s compatibility with an individual person. If you are considering purchasing or adopting a Labrador Retriever, please consult the breeder and/or shelter staff concerning the Lab’s temperament, personality and, especially, energy level!
Fun Fact: Endal, a Labrador Retriever and service dog in the UK, placed an unconscious person in the recovery position, retrieved the man’s cell phone from beneath the car, fetched a blanket and covered him, barked at nearby houses for assistance, and even ran to a nearby hotel for help during an emergency in 2001. He has since received several distinctions including “the most decorated dog in the world,” “Dog of the Millennium,” and the PDSA’s Gold Metal for Animal Gallantry and Devotion to Duty.
Do you or have you owned a Labrador Retriever? Please tell us about him/her in the comments below! I’d love to hear about your experiences with the breed.
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