The Labrador retriever is the most well-known of all the sporting group breeds, so much so that it is commonly seen as a family pet rather than a working dog.
But make no mistake: While the house-pet version can be a couch potato, the broad-headed, burly Lab is never happier than when working in the field like his bloodlines dictate. Few other breeds can match the energy levels and bird drive inherent to the Lab, which make him almost unanimously a waterfowler's best friend.
During the last half of the 19th century, England's sporting aristocracy developed the Labrador retriever. Tradition holds they started with large and small Newfoundlands, mixing in several other breeds as they went along.
Which other breeds? Unconfirmed rumors suggest the curly-coat retriever, flat-coat retriever, poodle and pointer. Whatever they used, they got it right, for Labs have become over-achievers in every activity in which they participate: waterfowl and upland hunting, field trials and hunt tests, conformation shows, obedience trials, agility trials, handicapped-assistance work, search and rescue, even drug and explosive detection. Then too, they make wonderful house pets.
After World War I, the Lab began to trump all other canines in British driven hunts and field trials. About then, Scottish gamekeeper Dave Elliot invented the blind retrieve, for which no dog has any natural instincts. The Lab's greater trainability gave him a significant edge over the then-dominant flat-coat.
During the 1920s, several wealthy Americans made frequent trips to England to enjoy British hunting and field trials. Not surprisingly, they began bringing Labs back home. In 1931, these prominent Americans formed the Labrador Retriever Club Inc. and held the first American Kennel Club-licensed retriever field trial. During the Great Depression, AKC trials spread across the country, mostly because of the wealth of the few participants.
After World War II, our rapidly improving economy enabled the American middle class to have both the leisure time and disposable income for serious hobbies. Since so many of them were WWII veterans familiar with firearms, hunting became extremely prevalent — especially with the urban population, who now had the time, money and transportation. The Lab gained great popularity among these new hunters.
However, field trials were expensive. Thus, most of our population lacked an off-season dog game until 1984, when non-competitive (and more affordable) hunt tests became the fastest-growing dog activity in American history. Labs excelled at these hunt tests just as they mastered field trials. They train for blind retrieves better than the two other marking breeds — Chesapeake Bay retrievers and curly-coats — and can mark better than the only more trainable breed, the golden retriever.
Popularity created a series of splits within the breed. First came the show-field split. Another division happened because some prefer Labs to point upland game, which led to lines of pointing Labs. Some came to favor the stockier, calmer English type, so they imported what became known as British Labs. The Lab's phenomenal reputation also led backyard breeders to saturate the market with non-working, non-show and not-much-of-anything-else "pet stock" Labs.
Because groups breed Labs for many different purposes, they come in many variations. But the "ideal" Lab according to the AKC breed standard is a sturdily built, medium-sized dog. Males stand from 22.5 to 24.5 inches at the withers and weigh 65 to 80 pounds. Females stand 21.5 to 23.5 inches and weigh 55 to 70 pounds.
The breed has a double coat: A woolly, insulating undercoat, overlaid by a short, relatively waterproof outer coat that can be black, yellow or chocolate. Layered fur allows the dog to swim without taking on water and to plow through the uplands without picking up many burrs. Whatever burrs a Lab does collect stay on the surface to be easily flicked off.
A strong, high-energy dog, the Lab has an attractive way of getting around, especially at high speeds. When going full-tilt, his top line seems to make what mathematicians call a "sine wave" — a shallow, undulating curved line. Many consider the Lab the most stylish retriever.
Like all breeds, the Lab has some incidence of hereditary health problems, mostly hips, eyes and hearts. Anyone thinking of buying a Lab should avoid puppies from a poor health history.
The Lab has the personality traits of a jolly good fellow. Highly gregarious, they adore socializing. Labs love to please, accept commands from even a semi-competent trainer and work for anyone with even a clue as to how to handle a retriever. Clearly a trainer's dream dog.
An old saying among retrieverites might help you understand the Lab's attitude: "A Chesapeake resents being trained, a golden loves it and a Lab doesn't think it's necessary, but he'll accept it willingly just to please the trainer."
He also makes a great family dog, which explains why so many are bred just for that purpose. He's relaxed, sociable, a gracious host and, if necessary, a watchdog. The most stylish Lab I ever saw at a hunt test was so calm around the house that he seemed to be two different dogs. That's the kind of split personality every hunting dog should have.
The Modern Lab
Under today's conditions, the Lab may be our most complete waterfowl retriever. He marks accurately, handles blind retrieves exceptionally well, loves water and shrugs off nasty cover. He handles birds firmly but gently. His coat takes on little water, so he works effectively from a boat, and he's a pleasant companion in the blind during the sometimes long lulls between brief flurries of action.
No wonder the Lab has been America's most popular dog for the past two decades. Each breed excels in its own specialty and can also do yeoman's work in other areas. Such is the Labrador, America's omni-dog.
Jim Spencer's books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf.