The loveable Lab: Gentle giants of the canine world

Rens Hageman
Rens Hageman

Labrador Retrievers have consistently been one of the most popular family pets both in the UK and elsewhere in the world for decades thanks to trustworthy and proven natures.

Labs are gentle, yet outgoing and always eager to please which in short makes them highly trainable. Being so intelligent, the Labrador Retriever thrives just as well in a home environment as they do working alongside their owners in the field.

Originally bred to retrieve nets for fishermen and then game and fowl for hunters, the Labrador Retriever excels when asked to work in difficult and challenging terrains. They are more especially suited to work in and around water, thanks to their alertness and excellent water-resistant coats. The Labrador Retriever loves taking part in canine sports and they excel at other activities which includes working as Guide and Assistant Dogs. For decades, the Labrador Retriever has consistently been at the top of the list as a preferred companion and family pet throughout the world.

Breed History

If you’re not a history buff you may find reading about the breed history a bit of a bore. But the history of any dog can give you vital clues to understanding the natural instincts of your dog.

For many people, looks play a major role in choosing a dog. However, this often ends up with a mismatch between what the human wants from the relationship and what the dog wants from the relationship.

Knowing what your dog was initially bred to do can help you avoid making a mistake and save both you and your new friend a lot of communication issues and distress.


The Labrador didn’t start out as the breed that we know today. Originally called the St. John’s dog after the capital city of Newfoundland where it originated in the 1700’s.

Famous for its love of water and its natural desire to retrieve, the Labrador was used by fisherman to help retrieve fishing lines, nets and ropes. What’s more, the Labrador was capable of diving under the water to recover any fish that may have escaped.

The Labrador’s great work ethic, cooperative nature and ability to withstand the icy water made it a perfect choice as a working dog.

Unfortunately, the St. John’s dog eventually became extinct in its homeland. Because during the 19th century taxes and heavy restrictions were placed on owning a dog in an attempt to encourage sheep farming.

Bitches were taxed particularly severely and a limitation of only one dog per household meant that any litters of puppies were often destroyed. What’s more, around the same time strict quarantine laws were introduced in the UK in a bid to get rid of rabies. This had a devastating effect on the export of the St. John’s dog as the UK was the biggest importer of the breed at the time. Unfortunately, the last two known St. John’s dogs were both male and died in the 1980’s effectively ending the line.

The modern dog

If you’ve ever wondered about your lab’s ancestry, then you can thank the work of two English Aristocrats James Harris, the second Earl of Malmesbury and Walter Scott the fifth Duke of Buccleuch, who between them established the modern day Labrador.

The Earl of Malmesbury brought some of the first St. John’s dogs over from Newfoundland and started to breed them. He was the first to call them Labradors referring to the mainland portion of the province rather than the island of Newfoundland. As well as being a Member of Parliament, the Earl of Malmesbury enjoyed shooting and fishing, making the St. John’s dog an ideal choice of companion.

Several years later The Duke of Buccleuch followed suit. He established a breeding kennel and bred from the original St. John’s dogs imported to Scotland. However, it was a chance meeting between the sons of these men that began the current breeding program of the Labrador in the UK. Two male Labradors were given by the third Earl of Malmesbury to the sixth Duke of Buccleuch who began a breeding program with bitches that descended from the original dogs imported to Scotland by his father. And so the Labrador as we know it now was created. The UK Kennel Club recognised the Labrador Retriever as a distinct breed in 1903 with the American Kennel Club following suit in 1917.


Labradors are medium to large dogs with an average full grown male weighing between 29-35 kg. Typically Labradors come in one of three colours, black, yellow and chocolate. Although Silver or Red Fox Labradors are available too. However, these colours are rare and not currently recognised as a standard breed colour by the Kennel club.

Red Fox Labradors used to be very common with their dark golden or reddish coats. However, the darker colours went out of favour and breeders began to breed specifically for a much paler coat.

Silver labs are even more rare and are a result of an additional gene in chocolate Labradors that dilutes their coat colour to a silvery brown/grey.

There are actually two types of Labrador; English Labs and American Labs. English labs or ‘show labs’ tend to be stockier, with a thick tail similar to an Otter. They have broader skulls and shorter muzzles and tend to be heavier set. American labs or ‘field labs’ have longer legs, are more athletic looking, have longer muzzles that are more pointed and look sleeker.

Despite significant variations in appearance, there is no breed distinction made by either the UK Kennel Club or the American Kennel Club. They are not considered to be different breeds just a variation of the same dog although they do come from different breeding lines. Whether a Labrador is from a show line or working line, all Labs have webbed toes that should give you an idea of where they like to spend a lot of their time.

The Lab’s fur consists of a double coat which is waterproof. The dense outer coat has short, straight hair whereas the under layer is soft and downy. This combination of oily outer coat combined soft, insulating undercoat traps heat and protects the dog from the chill of cold water. Labradors shed their coats twice a year or if you are in a warmer client, regularly throughout the year.

Temperament and characteristics

Labradors have a reputation for being even-tempered, outgoing, kind and friendly. Because of their friendly, easy-going nature, they are not the best guard dogs. They are reasonably quiet, barking infrequently.

They are ranked as one of the top ten most intelligent dog breeds in the world and their intelligence and adaptability has made them a favourite choice for search and rescue, detection and therapy work. However, they can be boisterous, especially dogs from the working breed line and do like to chew. With voracious appetites combined with hard to resist pleading eyes are prone to obesity.

Labradors have an incredible sense of smell. This tendency to follow a scent means that they may wander off while on a walk if they find an interesting trail. However this desire to follow their nose also gives them the ability to be highly successful detection dogs.

With an excellent reputation as both a family dog and a working dog; they mature reasonably late. Because of this be prepared to have a dog behaving like a puppy until around three years of age. Patience and continual training are needed to ensure that any bad habits do not persist into adulthood.

The breed history will give you a good idea of how much they love water and most will take any opportunity to explore it. They won’t be fussy, whether it be the sea, a river or a muddy puddle any water will do. If you are a clean freak, stay away from the wet stuff, or you may want to consider a different breed!

Health matters

If you do choose a Labrador for your companion, you can expect to share your life with him or her for around 10 -12 years. Despite this, there are several health issues that tend to be more common in Labradors than other dogs. Although new breeding programmes are now trying to address these issues.

• Hip and elbow dysplasia

• Knee problems

• Cataracts

• Progressive retinal atrophy

• Obesity


Both the Labrador and the Golden are descendants of working dogs. And as such they need a fair amount of exercise to keep them happy.

Depending on the breed line you choose, i.e. working line or show line you will need to adjust your dog’s exercise routine accordingly. While working lines need more exercise than show lines, both are energetic dogs who enjoy a good run. Not only will your dog need a minimum of two hours physical exercise a day they will also need additional mental stimulation to keep them happy.

If you find that your dog is being destructive, uncooperative or just plain ‘naughty’ then try upping the exercise or provide more mental stimulation as bored or under-exercised dogs often display unwanted behaviours. However, as all dogs are different some will prefer a much longer exercise period than others. However, an hour as an absolute minimum for an adult dog is a good guideline.


The Labrador is marginally easier to keep well groomed than the Golden Retriever. Whereas the Labrador has a wash and wear coat that needs to be brushed at least once a week to keep it looking good, in contrast, the Golden retriever needs grooming every day to keep their feathered fur tangle free. What’s more, Goldens also need the tufts of fur between their toes trimmed to prevent any problems especially in the winter when the fur can become frozen. Both breeds are relatively heavy shedders. In fact, they will ‘blow’ their coats twice a year with some continuous shedding throughout the year.

Grooming helps with the management of shedding and during heavy moulting periods, daily grooming with an undercoat rake will help keep your dog tidy.


The Labrador has an excellent reputation. Not only as outstanding working dogs but also as tolerant and co-operative family pets.

Which is why this breed has consistently been in the top 10 most popular breeds in the UK and USA year on year. You are sure to get a friendly and intelligent dog that is willing to please and is highly trainable.

(Article source: Practical Paw)

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