March 13, 2023
It wasn’t too long ago when you would have felt less embarrassed pulling up to the boat ramp on duck opener towing your rig with a pink Subaru, than you would have after letting a diminutive Lab out of his crate. Big retrievers were all the rage, and the logic seemed sound.
After all, you don’t see a lot of 160-pound dudes making the roster to play lineman in the NFL. Some jobs, we reckon, require a lot of strength. If those jobs also require a level of Viking imperviousness to the cold, then body mass is a necessity, as well. Big and strong was a thing for a long time in the duck world, but our dogs paid the price for it.
Now, it’s far more common to see smaller dogs hauling geese across cut cornfields, and greenheads through the late-season chop. There are still holdouts in the bigger-is-better camp, but they aren’t nearly as numerous as they were just a couple of decades ago. This is due to a variety of reasons, most of which are tied to lifespan and proneness to injury.
Chronic Problems for Big Dogs
When my older Labrador retriever got diagnosed with arthritis in her elbow, the vet gave me some options for treatment. She also said, “Keep her at this weight.” At 60 pounds, Luna was in the sweet spot where she had a nice cut behind the ribs, and wasn’t carrying around any extra weight, which could exacerbate her condition.
A condition that is not uncommon in retrievers. Now, the argument can be (correctly) made that many joint issues are heritable, so the size of a dog really doesn’t have any bearing on whether they’ll develop chronic issues. But that’s selling the whole thing short. It’s simple physics, and while a bigger body might mean a more stout skeletal structure, ligaments and tendons, it also means more impact with every movement.
Is this alone, enough of an argument to seek out a Lab that might top out at 50 to 70 pounds, instead of 85 to 100? On the genetic front, no. But if you factor in the likelihood of blowing out on ACL or CCL, or some other injury that could come from simply running to the duck blind, it might.
While it’s pretty common to hear people talk about a puppy’s paws or some other feature of a newborn retriever, and matter-of-factly claim that the dog will end up giant or tiny, the truth is that it’s all about the blood. If you want a little dog, look at the parents and grandparents. They’ll tell you an awful lot about what size your potential litter pick will end up at in adulthood.
Now, there are outliers in nature. You hear stories about a sire and a dam that produce puppies well outside of their body style and size, but I suspect in nearly every case there were dogs in the lineage that fit that description.
Can They Handle The Job?
The argument for big retrievers, aside from just personal preference, was always that they could handle any job waterfowl hunting demanded. I asked professional dog trainer Tom Dokken about that when searching for my most recent puppy, and he simply said, “It’s all about the drive. Get a pup that lives to work and retrieve, and they’ll do everything you ask of them.”
He was right, of course. Not only can the smaller dogs, provided they have the heart and the training, do the job, but they are also a little less likely to have to sit out a season or two over an injury. They are also more likely to be able to join you in the duck blind well into their sunset years, when their much larger counterparts might have to stay home due to joint issues.
Now, it’s not writ in stone that either outcome is a guarantee due to retriever size alone. This topic, like most of them surrounding genetics and highly different dogs, can break a lot of different ways. That’s why it’s worth understanding if you’re in the market for a new pup, because it’s never a bad idea to hedge your bet toward a potentially healthier dog that might be able to give you a few more prime age years of waterfowling.