December 27, 2022
By Tom Keer
If any Labrador shies away from a person, then there clearly is something wrong with that person. Labs are biddable, easy going, adaptable, and intelligent. They’re athletic, they love to flush and fetch both upland birds and waterfowl, and they love the water. According to the American Kennel Club, the Lab has been the #1 most popular dog breed in the United States since 1991. You’d have to be hardboiled if you found something wrong with a Lab, but if you’re forced to choose between one style over the other, let’s dig into their differences.
History of the Labrador Retriever
This stately breed comes from humble beginnings. Breeding began in the United Kingdom somewhere between the 1500’s and 1600’s on cod fishing boats. If a fish fell off a fisherman’s hook, then an early version of these biddable dogs would spring into action. They’d jump off the transom, swim through the icy seas, and fetch up a meal of delicious, white-flaky fish. These dogs likely were an outcross of Otter hounds bred with descendants of the French Saint Hubert’s Hound, the canine choice used when hunting stag and deer. The Admiralty Records of the British Navy show that 250 British fishing vessels fished off Newfoundland in 1605, and it’s likely that quite a number of these dogs accompanied that fleet.
Breeding to develop these dogs that could fetch game, swim in big seas, and survive frigid water temperatures continued in Newfoundland. Their double coat with short hair was weather-resistant, and it wouldn’t ice up. Their long, thick, ‘otter-tail’ served as a natural rudder to efficiently direct the dogs toward game without using additional energy. Their relaxed demeanor caused ship captains to bring them on board their vessels as company. It’s a mystery how a dog bred in England that was also developed in Newfoundland arrived with a handle like the Labrador retriever. But so it goes.
The Brits and the Newfies continued their respective breeding programs. British noblemen visiting Canada in the 1800’s saw some characteristics they favored and returned to England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland with some dogs used in out-crossings. Immigrants to America brought along some of these pups, and in 1917 the first Lab was registered in the USA. In the 1920’s and the 1930’s, additional dogs were brought stateside from England, and the breed took hold.
The American Labrador Retriever: Born in the USA
Physical Height: 21-25 inches
Weight: Male 65-70 pounds
Weight: Female 55-60 pounds
Disposition: Friendly, athletic, and calm
Coloration: Black, chocolate, yellow
The good news about the American Labs’ popularity is that there are a lot of great dogs for every hunter or trialer’s preference. Arkansas’ Eukanuba Pro Trainer Chris Akin, owner of Webb Footed Kennels, has trained more than 4,000 dogs, produced more than 500 Hunting Retriever Champions, titled over 200 Master Hunters, and 55 Grand Hunting Retriever Champions. Two of his dogs have been Super Retriever Series Crowned Champions.
“I run hunt tests to keep my dogs and my clients’ dogs sharp in the off-season,” Akin said. “But I’m a duck hunter through and through, and that makes the Lab a natural fit. My personal dogs are with me and my family 365 days a year. Their personality, loyalty, and affection is unbeatable. Labs are used for waterfowl hunting, upland hunting, in field trials and hunt tests, and for detecting bombs and drugs, because the Lab knows one thing: How to please his master. Some retriever breeds aren’t good with upper-level training, while others are one-handler dogs. Not the Lab, for they are all-purpose dogs. There’s a lot to be said for that.”
Akin talks about his early dog training days and how he got started with Labs. “American Labs were big, not that smart, and had a lot of health issues. Selective breeding of field trial and testing champions have dramatically improved the breed. The 100-pound Labs of yester-year are now much leaner. I like males that are between 70 and 75 pounds and females in the 50- to 60-pound range. Their hips, eyes, and elbows are all solid, and one thing is for sure, American Labs these days have a tremendous amount of drive, stamina and ability.”
The British Labrador Retriever: The Stiff Brit
Physical Height: 22-22 1/2 inches
Weight: Male 45-50 pounds
Weight: Female 30-40 pounds
Disposition: Calm with a deep desire to please
Coloration: Black, chocolate, yellow
Note: England’s The Kennel Club regards the fox red coloration as yellow and does not recognize silver.
Jeremy Criscoe, owner of Whistling Wings Kennel, and a Eukanuba pro trainer, focuses on British Labrador retrievers, with 100 percent of his sires and dams coming from UK stock. “All of our dogs come from proven championship bloodlines,” Criscoe said. “Depending on the particular genetics we’re looking for in our breedings, I’ll import dogs born in either England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales. What I particularly like about the overall breed is their trainability. They’re smart, loyal, hardworking, and eager to please. Their biddable temperaments make them a joy to be around.”
Crisco outlines some of the aspects that define the British or UK Labrador and the dogs he breeds. “Every champion dog is from hunting stock and are selected based on their performance on an actual hunt. Game tracking is a big part of the criteria. UK Labs have keen noses and are particularly effective when running blind retrieves. They’re calm and patient when sitting just as they are when they’re in a bird buggy or a duck blind. But when I cut them loose to retrieve or use as a strike dog for flushing quail, they’re hard charging. Over the century, the Brits have developed Labs with natural game-finding ability.”
The Best of Both Worlds
Legendary trainer Robert Milner of Tennessee’s Duckhill Kennels, is credited with introducing the British Lab to the United States. He did so after he spent the first half of his career working with American Labs. “I had trained over 3,000 American Labs and was tired of fighting with them,” he laughed. “On one trip to England I saw their good manners and tenacious drive, particularly when digging out cripples. I thought American hunters would benefit from these dogs and I started importing them though my first kennel, Wildrose Kennel. What I’ve always liked about the British Lab is that their breeding is elevated to such a high degree that training is easy. Most are smaller than a lot of American Labs, too.”
Is a UK Lab Better than an American Lab?
“Absolutely not,” Milner said, “But their breeding, training, and handling makes them very different. The dramatic differences between the UK and American Labs come from the values that are favored in Field Trials. Dogs win based on the values possessed by the judges and then they are usually bred. The UK values are very different from those in the US. In the UK, judges require excellent manners from dogs. Dogs need to sit absolutely still and exhibit no movement and be perfectly calm. They have to be calm even when there are hundreds of birds in the air and shotguns discharging from everywhere. Judges have a zero tolerance for noise, so no barking or whining is tolerated. I’ve seen a dog get disqualified from a trial for the slight noise he made while yawning. Dogs are allowed more latitude when running blinds and then marks, and they are allowed to determine the most efficient line to the bird. The handler doesn’t direct them, the dog must figure it out. In the UK, dogs must bypass dead birds and first track cripples. As a result, British Labs have strong noses and excellent bird smarts."
Milner mentioned there are additional differences in the way US owners handle their Labs in field trials. “Marks need to be run straight, and straightest lines are highly prized. To accomplish that task, trainers must perform regular, routine, and repetitive drills to get their dogs focused on running those straight routes. Obedience is developed through this constant running of lines, marks, and blind retrieves, and that means American handlers are far more involved with the dog’s run. American judges like to see dogs when they’re on the ground, and if a handler’s pup runs out of sight, then the dog is considered to be out-of-control. Those dogs usually are disqualified. In the UK, dogs can be out of sight. American field trial Labs aren’t required to be quiet, and in some instances, aggressive behavior is valued. It’s quite the opposite in the UK, where the dog is allowed far more ability to find and retrieve a bird.”
“The dramatic differences between British and American Labs is one reason American Labs are not seen in British competitions,” Milner adds. “It’s also why British Labs aren’t seen in American competitions. But neither is better than the other. They’re just different, and that’s where the beauty lies. Any owner, handler, competitor, and hunter can find a dog that matches their tastes, preferences, and working requirements. Selection comes down to personal choice, just as it always should.”
American Cowboy or Stiff Brit. That’s a personal choice for you. If you like Clint Eastwood, then go with the American Cowboy. But if you prefer James Bond, think about going across the Pond. You won’t go wrong with either pick, but it sure will be different.