Labrador Retrievers have proven time and time again that they are the most beloved dog breed in the world. Known for their even temper, athleticism, family-friendliness, retrieving abilities, intelligence and loyalty, Labs have consistently ranked as the most popular breed for several decades, according to the American Kennel Club. Labrador Retrievers originated from the now extinct St. John’s water dog breed found on the island of Newfoundland. An explorer named W.E. Cormack first found the dogs around the 1820’s on his excursions across the island. The dark-coated St. John’s water dog made an impression on Cormack who described the pups as “admirably trained as retrievers in fowling.” The St. John’s water dogs were then brought to England for breeding purposes via fishing boats. They became known as the Labrador Retriever, most likely because they would retrieve in the Labrador Sea.
Interestingly, the Newfoundland breed was also discovered around the same time as the St. John’s water dog, in the region of Labrador. However, the dog from Newfoundland became known as the Labrador Retriever, and the breed from Labrador was given the name Newfoundland.
The breed described as the St. John’s water dog soon became known throughout as the Labrador Retriever, and was consistently bred in England. The sturdy breed began to appear in artwork in the first painting titled “Cora. A Labrador Bitch” by Edwin Landseer, and in photographs as early as 1856 when the Earl of Home was pictured with his Lab named Nell. Two of the most prominent early breeders were the Earl of Malmesbury (who bred the first chocolate Labradors), and the Duke of Buccleuch. Joining with their sons, these two families spear-headed the breeding of Labrador Retrievers for many years.
Through the Buccleuch kennels, the Labrador pups became increasingly popular companions on hunting trips. They were found to be useful retrievers and hardy gun dogs, able to work diligently with a cheerful disposition, in spite of long days hunting in the wet British climate. The Labradors were also the choice breed for fishermen who needed a sturdy canine with a thick coat to help retrieve articles lost in the water. Labradors having webbed paws and tirelessly muscular bodies, made excellent swimmers and sporting companions for the active upper-class.
By the 1870’s the Labs had become fairly common breed in the United Kingdom. Though most of the St. John’s water dogs had been darkly colored, the first yellow Lab noted was named Ben of Hyde, born in 1899 in Radclyffe. The Labrador Retriever was then recognized by the Kennel Club shortly thereafter in 1903. The occasional litter of Labradors would possess pups with liver markings, but the first official solid-colored chocolate Labrador made an appearance several decades later in the 1930’s.
The yellow labs originally veered more toward the golden, ruddy, and butterscotch shade (which in the 1980’s were selectively bred to create the rare fox-red Labrador). In the early 20th century, the golden yellow labs became increasingly lighter, with more of a cream-colored shade of coat. The chocolate Labs can be traced back to several key black sires who, at the turn of the century, consistently produced offspring of the deep liver shade. Of the three coat color options, it is the black Labrador Retrievers that most closely resemble their ancestors, the St. John’s water dog. The first dog to ever be highlighted on the covered of the iconic American publication Life Magazine, was a black Lab named Blind of Arden, in 1938.
Appearance & Description
Labrador Retriever is a well-balanced muscular breed of medium proportions. They have dense short coats that are water resistant and conducive to water retrieving, cooler climates and rough terrain. Their athletic bodies can keep a steady gait alongside hunters, and their large feet have webbed toes to aid with swimming and walking on heavy snow. These dogs have wide heads, and have thick, long tails resembling that of an otter.
Official breed standards (according to the AKC)
Head: Labradors typically have broad, flat heads with distinct eyebrows. The eyes should be well-proportioned and expressive, with a sympathetic and “kind” gaze.
Coat: Labrador coats are short, straight and thick, feeling coarse when touched. They also have a heavier undercoats which helps insulate the animal in poor weather. When wet, the fur may appear wavy down the dog’s back.
Body: A Labrador’s body is strong, with well-distributed muscles and proportionate structure. The chest must be broad without being overly wide, or too narrow as this would negatively affect the dog’s gait. The neck and chest line must fall straight, without protruding or being rounded. The stomach and back line should likewise be trim and straight without sloping up or down. The tail should be sleek and thick, without any curling or tapering.
Forequarters: The forequarters on a Labrador should have well-appointed long muscles, and should meet the shoulders forming an exact 90 degree angle. From a frontal view, the forelegs should appear firm, in a straight line and with strong bones. The elbows should align tight against the ribs, without being loose or inhibiting movement of the legs. The forelegs should neither be too thick, short nor narrow, but rather well-balanced with the other aspects of the body.
Hindquarters: The propelling force of the hind legs requires them to be strong and well-muscled. They must align straight and parallel to the front legs, with thick and defined thighs. The hind leg and hock joint positioning bring balance and should avoid any strong angles or favoring of sides. When the dog stands straight, the toes should fall behind the highest point of the rump.
According to the American Kennel Club, breed standards for Labrador Retrievers include three colors: black, chocolate and yellow. The color of the dog is determined based on a combination of the skin pigments and the pigment of the fur produced. The genetic code dictates what color the dogs will be; one litter can produce dogs with various coat colors. Depending on the genotype of the specific dog, they can have coats colored black, chocolate or yellow, while the scalp skin might be black, brown or pale. Yellow labs with pale or chocolate pigment on their skin are called “Dudleys” and would not be considered eligible for breed standard competitions, as only yellow Labs with black skin may compete. In rare occasions the genes can be diluted, creating color variations which are not considered part of the breed-standard. Changes in the pheomelanin of a dog might result in a rare red-colored Labrador, or in some cases, silver or lilac colored fur (though many doubt that dogs with such coloring should be considered Labradors at all.) Unfortunately, dogs who were born a different color due to the pheomelanin variations may experience hair loss, skin allergies, drying and inflammation. If the dog’s appearance fails to meet any of the above physical requirements, he may be disqualified from competing in national dog shows.
Cost of Breed
Most purebred puppies tend to be expensive, as buyers are paying for strong bloodlines, and high quality health and physical conditions. Purebred Labrador puppies typically tend to sell for between $300-1000. Though they can cost more if the dog’s parents or ancestors have won national field championships, or have possessed elite AKC-registered champion/hunting/retrieving wards. Dogs of such high pedigree can cost upwards of $2,000-6,000.
Temperament & Behaviors
Labradors are favored as America’s top dog breed choice for an abundance of reasons. As a group, Labradors are universally deemed loyal, as they have been dedicated hunting companions, working as retrievers and gun dogs for centuries. These basic purposes of the breed’s development have greatly affected their traits as a whole. Retrievers stay close, and are observant and obedient. They want to please their master, and consistently prove to be attentive followers, no matter how severely the fierce terrain or weather may attempt to deter them. They are very cooperative, and highly intelligent dogs, able to understand countless commands, and learn numerous tricks. They rank as one of the top ten smartest dog breeds and have gained countless distinctions in agility, tracking, hunting, and retrieving, etc.
Labradors make excellent family dogs, due to their patient and easy-going demeanor. They adapt well with other pets, both cats and dogs (with a minor amount of training) and always want to be a part of whatever is going on. They are social creatures who enjoy meeting new people, and are very protective of their family. Labradors are not as aggressive as other breeds, are not often used as guard dogs, but rather watch dogs. Labradors are energetic with great stamina and strength, making them ideal candidates for service dog work. They are often trained to assist the handicapped, or track and retrieve lost items or people. Labs enjoy swimming in any body of water they can find, and love rigorous activities including long walks, jogs, hikes and runs. They are very determined, courageous and curious, meaning if their master does not exert “pack leader” authority over these dogs, they may try to rule the show. Labs’ enthusiasm for the outside world will incline them to bolt for the open door if they are not restrained early and taught to wait for the command. If they are not given balanced and regular exercise, Labs can get high strung, or engage in destructive behaviors (such as foraging or digging , etc.) Overall, Labrador Retrievers have steady, cheerful and predictable personalities; they are a great crowd-pleaser for any puppy preference.
- They are attentive with commands and respond very quickly. As gun dogs, they are devoted listeners, eager and ready to obey.
- They are loyal and courageous: There have been countless stories of Labs putting their own comfort or safety on the line to help rescue someone.
- They are athletic: Labs can keep up with any activity thrown at them, no matter how difficult, thus helping their owners stay fit in the process.
- They are intelligent: When the owner provides sufficient training, given time and patience, no task is too difficult for this breed.
- They are sensitive to emotion: Labs have a comforting presence when one is sad or lonely; they work well as therapy dogs, and service dogs.
- They are social: Labs are welcoming to all, and eager to make new friends. They are known to be gentle with children, and are friendly with other animals and new people.
- They are affectionate: Labs are loving and want to be with their owners all the time, showing consistent cheerfulness and upbeat energy with their families.
- Labradors need lots of exercise, which might be too much of a time commitment for some dog owners.
- Without proper mental and physical stimulation, Labs can develop destructive habits.
- If they are not trained properly, Labs might try to resist authority and respond with stubbornness.
- Since they are natural retrievers, Labradors have a tendency to chase small animals that run away from them (meaning once one sees a squirrel at the park- he might try to dash off in that direction.) This may be apparent if he resides with small animals and is not gradually acquainted with them in a controlled environment.
- Labs do bark at intruders, or threatening people, and sometimes when excited or while they are chasing something. If they are hurt or threatened, they may respond defensively, growling barking and even biting in extreme cases.
- Because of their natural enthusiasm, Labradors are voracious eaters. This can lead to obesity if unchecked, or as well as the bad habit of begging. Labs have a tendency to beg at the table when they want a treat, or are hoping for scraps to fall within their reach.
- Their connection to their owners can sometimes lead to mournful behavior and separation anxiety whenever they are left alone.
Generally, Labrador Retreivers are considered one of the healthiest dog breeds. When they are nourished properly and exercised on a regular basis, these dogs tend to live peacefully, uninhibited by disease for an average of 10-14 years. However, like every breed, the Labrador is susceptible to certain injuries and ailments.
Inherited disorder: Unlike infectious diseases and viruses which may be caught and passed from animal to animal, inherited disorders are unfortunate health problems that are passed generationally. The diseases and physical strains which plague a Chow Chow might not affect an Italian Greyhound the same way. For example, unfortunately, a Labrador Retriever is nearly 3 times more likely to have patellar luxation than other breeds. Though not every Lab will struggle with the health problems below, the Labrador breed is believed to be predisposition with the following inherited disorders:
- Hip and elbow dysplasia
- Symptoms: Pain or lameness in the hips and joints, difficult moving, diminishing efforts in running and walking.
- Treatments: Though there is no set cure for dysplasia, anti-inflammatory medication and acupuncture may be administered to diminish the pain. In extreme cases, surgical replacement of the hip or elbow may be advised.
- Patella Luxation
- Symptoms: The sliding of the knee cap (patella), is usually inherited, or caused by injury or trauma. Some initial signs might be that the dog may skip instead of run, or avoid using a certain leg, or the patella might even make a popping noise when the dog shifts his weight.
- Treatments: There are four grades of patella luxation, and the treatments will depend on the position of the patella. Most of the most severe conditions (grades 3-4) can be solved with surgeries such as trochlear modification or lateral imbrication; while the first two grades are often healed through the non-surgical methods of rest and analgesics.
- Eye diseases: (Progressive retinal atrophy)
- Symptoms: The first symptom of Progressive Retinal Atrophy is night blindness (generally characterized by a hesitation to walk at night). Pupil dilation becomes increasingly apparent, and eventually the dog goes blind. The process is neither painless nor traumatic as it occurs gradually. (Note: On occasion, note that Labradors can also struggle with eye diseases such as conjunctivitis, cataracts, corneal ulcers, prolapse of the eyelids, and entropian.)
- Treatments: While there is no treatment for PRA, breeders can have their dogs tested to see if they are carriers of the disease before breeding. (Most other eye disease can be treated with medications or surgery.)
- Epilepsy & Exercise-Induced Collapse
- Symptoms: Seizures are the main symptom of epilepsy. They consist of collapsing, jerking, unconsciousness, drooling, tongue-biting, foaming at the mouth, and muscle twitching.
- Treatments: Epilepsy can be treated with medications prescribed by a vet, or by simply trying to provide the canine as peaceful a life as possible. Finding the balance of monitoring exercise to avoid overexertion and stress often helps Labradors cope with their condition without the use of drugs.
Obesity: Labradors tend to have a bad habit of begging, and using their sympathetic eyes to manipulate humans into giving them treats. The insatiable appetite of a Labrador can get them into trouble, as many of them struggle with obesity in their mid-adult to senior years. Obesity often causes arthritis and joint discomfort in dogs, as well as limited mobility and diabetes. By keeping consistent portion control over a variety of reliable dog food (ranging from dry food and canned products), the Labs should be able to stave off obesity and the negative implications of this health concern. Regular playtime and cardiovascular exercise will help guard Labradors from gaining unwanted weight. For other tips on how to manage a Labrador’s weight, review our guide on how to prevent pet obesity.
Infectious disease: Modern medicine has provided numerous vaccinations which canines can benefit from. By ensuring that Labs get their regular booster shot and stay up to date on their vaccines, the likelihood of a dog contracting an infectious disease greatly decreases.
Cancer: Fortunately, cancer (particularly the turmeric variety) is far less common in Labradors as it is in other Retriever breeds, such as the Golden. That said, dogs most often contract cancers such as melanoma or lymphoma, which can be treated by topical removal via surgery, or treated through chemotherapy. Though cancer is not the most common disease in Labradors, all canines should receive check-ups and treatments to make sure there are no legions or cancerous growths in their bodies.
Emotional and Mental Health: Labs are highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive dogs. Not only do they detect minor tone distinctions, but they also can sense where there is tension, anger or hostility in their owner’s attitudes. This sensitivity can cause them to develop anxiety and behavior disorders. For their emotional health, Labradors require love, affection and affirmation on a regular basis. They respond very well to positive reinforcement, and being gun dogs, long to be with their owner as often as they can. The Labrador will suffer emotionally if he is neglected or receives harsh verbal treatment. Similarly, the intellectual capacity of Labradors requires them to be given regular stimulation in order to maintain their mental health. Exploring uncharted territory, learning new tricks, and gaining new skills will help the Labrador stay mentally engaged. Both the emotional and mental needs of a dog must be met if his overall well-being is a priority. A dog who feels safe, loved, well-fed, well-exercised, and challenged, is a happy and healthy pet.
Preventative Care: All canines thrive under a balanced lifestyle consisting of: daily exercise, nutritious and quality food products (including healthy vitamins and minerals), routine health checks & vaccinations, behavior-development obedience training, a stable and loving environment. Though Labrador Retrievers may require more affection and activity than calmer and more independent dog breeds, the basic principles remain the same. For a more detailed look at how to give your pet the best lifestyle to promote good health, review our article on Preventative Care for Dogs and Cats.
Training a Labrador Retriever can entail everything from obedience training, to spoken commands, to crate training, house breaking, and special skills training. The tactics most often applied with Labs are reward-based training and clicker training. Though most basic training principles apply for all canines across the board, there are unique aspects to bear in mind when working with a Labrador. The first thing to note is that, most Labradors want to do well. They tend to be less independent, rebellious or “naughty” than other breeds, and genuinely want you to be proud of them. Labrador retrievers also have other positive qualities that many breeds are without, which make them rewarding dogs to work with. They rank as one of the most intelligent dog breeds, and are highly responsive and observant, having good recall and memory. Their consistent energy levels make them ideal hunting companions, and their ready-to-go attitude provides eagerness to practice training whenever you are.
That said, Labradors can be ruled by their enthusiasm, prey drive or whims, causing them to make willful decisions to disregard their owner’s commands. This may manifest in these kinds of cases: not returning when called (especially if he is too busy doing something exciting, such as chasing a small animal); dragging his owner/handler when on a walk, being too eager to get somewhere, and choosing not to heed the “heel” command. Labradors are known for their seemingly indomitable zeal, which can make them both encouraging and at time challenging to work with. Practicing consistency and exerting the right amount of corrective authority, will help a Labrador remember his manners.
When the dog is young, help him become comfortable with being held and handled (by friends and strangers), and see that he is house trained & potty trained within the first few weeks/months of his life.
If your Labrador has that special gift of being able to stay focused amid distraction, and complete complicated tasks, you may consider working with your pup in special training techniques. Labrador Retrievers have competed in complex tricks, agility, tracking, and retrieving events, as well as becoming service dogs for the blind, working as motion assistance dogs, therapy pets, emergency retrievers and rescue dogs, scent tracking police dogs and competitive show dogs. By using the right reward system (Labs heavily rely on positive reinforcement and incentive training!), there is almost no limit to what a Labrador can accomplish!
Before embarking on complex training routines with your dog, be aware of the correct training terminology in case you need to seek advice from a professional trainer, as well as the most helpful pet training methods used in the industry.
Dog Shows and Competitions
In the United States, there are over 2,000 dog shows which occur annually. Labs are welcome to compete in a plethora of canine shows including events hosted by the Labrador Retriever Club, the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac, Inc. (LRCP), the International All Breed Canine Association (IABCA), the The Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show, and the American Kennel Club (AKC), to name a few. Specific-breed events are often held by national breed associations, while regional competitions, national handler events, conformation events shows are routinely hosted by the AKC. Labradors often compete in the below list of events put on through private breed competitions or events by the AKC.
Conformation dog shows and trial events exist to weed out the dogs that may not be up to standards in either appearance or ability. By instituting pre-shows, such as trial and conformation competitions, judges are able to identify the dogs that are both up to speed on the basic skills needed to compete, and those that possess the features of the breed standard.
A Lab may be disqualified is he is found to be unequal to the measurements stipulated by the breed standards, if his nose is pink or lacking pigmentation, if he has any alterations to natural tail size and length, or if his coat is a different hue than black, yellow, or chocolate as detailed in the breed appearance standard. If a dog meets the criteria, he may be able to go for the gold in a competition.
Below are several of the most popular events that Labradors compete in:
- Gun Dog
- Tracking Dog
- Utility Dog
- Rally & Obstacle Courses
- Canine Good Citizen Events
(Other competitions held by the American Kennel Club include: Lure Coursing, Hunting Skills, Herding, Coursing Ability, 4-6 Month Beginner Puppy, as well as Orthopedic Foundation for Animals show which is geared for Labs that have hip dysplasia or other injuries/diseases. On occasion, there are also special skills competitions where dogs can exhibit their abilities to perform complex tasks in a specific field.)
The Labrador Retriever Club keeps list of past championship titles and awards that Labrador Retrievers have received in each event, as well as the “Dog For All Reasons” National Specialty Awards. Likewise the LRCP also keeps records of the championship winners for all events they host annually.
One of the most well-known dog shows, is the renowned Westminster Kennel Club National Dog Show held in Madison Square Gardens in New York City. Surprisingly, though the Labrador Retriever ranks as the uncontested favorite dog breed in America, in the 100+ years that the Westminster Kennel Club has been running, Labs have never won the prestigious “Best in Show” award. They have only ever placed at the competition a minute total of 10 times, coming in second place four times, and fourth place 6 times. Many representatives of the Labrador Retreiver Club feel that this is an unfortunate reflection of the misevaluation of this beloved breed.
In the United States, the Labrador Retriever has maintained its title as the most popular breed of domestic dog for the last 20+ years. Though this breed has never won “Best in Show” at the world-famous Westminster Dog Show, Labrador Retrievers also rank as #1 favorite dog breed in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. (This is a particularly impressive feat in New Zealand, which having a high population of sheep, would be expected to favor popular herding breeds. But in this country, the Lab has bested breeds such the German Shepherd and the Border Collie!)
Labrador Retrievers rank as the #1 favorite dog breed of America, so it is not surprising that Hollywood has chosen the lovable Lab as a frequent cinematic highlight. Labs have stared in movies like Marley & Me (after the New York Times Bestseling Book), and the Labrador/Mastiff mix named Spike famously immortalized the beloved character Old Yellar in the 1957 movie of the same title. Labs have appeared in TV shows such as Lost, Neighbours, Scrubs, Downton Abbey, Krypto: Superman Labrador, and Family Guy (as the cartoon character Brain Griffon) among others. Labradors have been named the mascot at Universities, and the dog “King Buck” became the first black Lab on a U.S. postage stamp. A lab also claimed the titled of oldest dog, when a pup named Bella managed to live nearly three times her expected lifespan, at 29 years.
Labradors have also won recognition for their heroic services across the continents over many decades. Endal, a yellow Lab in the UK worked as a service dog and was decorated numerous times for his bravery and devotion. In one case, Endal saved a man’s life by retrieving his mobile phone from under a car, covering him with a blanket and running to a hotel nearby to get help. This celebrated dog won numerous awards, such as Dog of the Year, Lifetime Achievement Award, Dog of the Millennium, PDSA Gold Medla, Assistance Dog of the Year, and the Local Hero Award, to name a few.
Black Lab Jake was a search and rescue dog who help locate hundreds of survivors during Katrina, and after the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11th. On that sane fateful day, another dog named Dorado helped his owner Omar Riviera escape down 70 stories, just minutes before the iconic building fell.
Lucky and Flo were two Labradors who were famous for detecting counterfeit products such as pirated DVDs. Their fame brought them on the Today Show on NBC, after finding over 2 million DVDs and busting a multi-million dollar pirating project. Zanjeer a yellow Lab and police dog in Mumbai, India helped identify nearly 3,000 kilos of explosives, saving countless lives in the process. Hundreds of Labrador Retrievers have assisted humans over the years, on dangerous missions, as well as offering their support day in and day out for patients that need service pets. There is no question why this devoted and reliable dog breed is such a universally popular dog.