The Labrador Retriever, also known simply as the Labrador, or “Lab,” is one of the most popular breeds of dog in the word. It is especially popular in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The Labradors intelligence, affection, and playfulness have made the breed a highly desirable companion and family dog. The breed also possesses an unparalleled ability in the field as a hunting dog.
The number of Labradors participating in dog shows has increased and it is common for them to take top entry at championship shows. This breed’s popularity continues to increase in Europe as many of those exhibitors travel to Great Britain to show off their dogs.
A Labrador’s personality is what has made it a favorite breed since its beginning. They are friendly, good-natured, even-tempered, and willing to please their masters. They have a reputation for getting along well with the other household pets, including other dogs and cats.
Labs are quite tolerant and will put up with most any behavior from children in the home. They are easy to care for and are content to have nothing more than the companionship and approval of their family. They will faithfully alert their owners to strangers at the door but are rarely aggressive. They are far more likely to cheerfully greet a stranger than to try to aggressively run them off. For this reason, they tend to make poor guard dogs.
There is rarely any danger of a Labrador fighting with another dog. Rather, they will be over-friendly to a fault as they happily and naïvely run up to other dogs wagging their tails and wanting to play. However, all Labrador owner should be aware that not all other breeds are as friendly, which can sometimes get Labradors into trouble.
Labs are generally very sensitive to punishment. A stern vocal reprimand is usually enough to deter them from misbehaving. The disappointed tone in their owner’s voice is usually punishment enough, as their primary goal in life is to please their masters. You will receive much better results in their behavior through affection and praise than through reprimand and punishment.
Physical Traits and Appearance
- AKC Breed Popularity: Ranks 1 of 193
- Height: 22.5-24.5 inches (male), 21.5-23.5 inches (female)
- Weight: 65-80 pounds (male), 55-70 pounds (female)
- Life Expectancy: 10-12 years
- Group: Sporting Group
The Labrador is usually bred in the colors black, yellow, and chocolate. All three colors can occur in one litter. With a maximum shoulder height of 24.5 inches, the Labrador is one of the medium-sized dog breeds. With its muscular and broad body, an average male Labrador weighs up to around 70 lbs, whereas the females are usually around 10 pounds lighter. The Labrador has a pronounced ribcage and a prominent and broad skull but has a well-proportioned appearance. Its short coat with dense undercoat can be black, chocolate, reddish or creamy and tends to be very hairy. The Labrador has a strong, thick long tail and floppy ears, which give it a trustworthy, striking appearance.
Origins and History of the Labrador
It has been at least 185 years since the Labrador first came to Great Britain. Although speculation and disagreement surround the dog’s origins, fresh information on the breed’s beginnings seems unlikely to emerge. Let’s explore the history and origins of this magnificent dog.
The Labrador Name
The ancestor of what is now the Labrador Retriever was first known as the St. John’s water dog or Lesser Newfoundland dog. It was not until the dogs were later brought to England, that they were named in honor of the Canadian region of Labrador in order to distinguish them from the (Greater) Newfoundland dog, a larger and heavier breed, despite the fact that the breed hailed from the southernmost portion of the Avalon Peninsula.
Evidence confirming the breed’s connection with the region of Newfoundland is abundant. The island of Newfoundland is now part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. In his popular work, Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1814), Colonel Peter Hawker describes the dogs of that area and distinguishes between the larger Newfoundland dog and the smaller Saint John’s dog which was the breed employed chiefly by the native fisherman of that region.
The smaller sailing vessels used by traders and fisherman would have ample supply of tackle and nets during their voyages. Because few sailors would risk diving into the North Atlantic ocean to retrieve these items without some surety of getting them back, the courageous, strong, and double-coated water dog proved an invaluable shipmate.
There were two lines of St. John’s dogs: The Greater Newfoundland line was of heavier complexion, large and with long fur. This line was the precursor of the Newfoundland and was probably the result of the crossing of St. John’s dogs with mastiffs brought to the island by generations of Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing on the high seas since the sixteenth century.
The Lesser Newfoundland line was smaller, lighter build, active, short-coated and soft, was the forerunner of the Labrador Retriever, being bred mainly by the English and Irish. Local fishermen originally used the dog to help carry the ropes between boats, help recover and remove fishing nets from the water. The loyalty of the dog, its taste for water and its willingness to work hard were valuable characteristics for fishermen. The white chest, legs, nose, and snout were characteristic of the St. John’s dog and often appeared in mixed farming breeds, and would occasionally manifest in pure Labradors as a small white spot on the chest or light tufts of white hair on the legs or muzzle.
Although it is unclear how these water dogs came to be on the island of Newfoundland, it is likely that the ancestors of this breed came from Europe. Sailors in earlier times would take dogs with them on their voyages. Such an animal would prove useful in hunting down meat as maintaining a fresh food supply was a constant problem.
Newcomers to these lands also found guard dogs useful as the indigenous people were often hostile to visitors. Later, colonists to the region would import sheep and cattle along with herding dogs.
While John Cabot is usually credited with discovering Newfoundland in 1497 as he sailed from Bristol, it is likely that other European peoples were in that area at approximately the same time. The Vikings, who were already in Greenland at that time, had established small settlements in Newfoundland as early as 1000 A.D. Although unlikely occurrence, their dogs could have survived through the centuries to the time of the St. John’s dog.
Much of the fishing and trade of this region was comprised of the great seafaring nations of Western Europe by the early 1500s. An intermingling of dog breeds could have taken place among the seafarers of this time.
During the nineteenth century, a good number of St. John’s dogs were taken to the region of Poole in England, which was at that time one of the fishmonger trade centers for the bourgeoisie. These dogs came to be appreciated as hunting dogs and for recovering birds from the water. A few breeders in England began breeding them at the same time on the island of Newfoundland. A combination of protectionist sheep breeding policies that led to exorbitant tax increases for dog owners and a quarantine for rabies in England prevented the return of the dogs to their original land, led to the gradual disappearance and eventual extinction of the St. John’s dog in Canada.
The first and second Earl of Malmesbury raised duck hunting dogs on their farm, as did the fifth and sixth Dukes of Buccleuch, along with Lord George’s youngest son, William Montagu-Douglas-Scott, who played a significant role in the development and establishment of the modern Labrador breed in 19th-century England. The Avon dogs – “Buccleuch Avon” and “Ned”- given by Malmesbury to assist the Duke of Buccleuch in his breeding program in the 1880s, are considered the ancestors of the contemporary Labrador.
The St. John’s first dog is said to have arrived in England around 1820. However, the breed’s reputation spread to England much earlier. There is a story which states that the Earl of Malmesbury saw a St. John’s dog on a fishing boat and immediately made arrangements with traders to have some of these dogs exported to England. The dog’s ability to recover anything in the water and on land so impressed the count, that he dedicated his entire kennel to the development and establishment of the breed.
- First written reference to the breed: 1814 – “Instructions to Young Sportsmen” by Colonel Peter Hawker.
- First painting of a Labrador: 1823 – “Cora. A Labrador Bitch” by Edwin Landseer.
- First photograph: 1856 – the Labrador “Nell” belonging to Cospatrick Douglas-Home, 11th Earl of Home (described as both a Labrador and a Saint John’s dog).
- In 1870 the name Labrador retriever became common in England.
- Birth of first registered Yellow Labrador: 1899 – “Ben of Hyde”, the kennel of Major CJ Radclyffe.
- First dog to appear on the cover of Life Magazine was a Black Labrador Retriever named “Blind of Arden” in the December 12, 1938 issue.
The Labrador retriever breed was first recognized by the British Kennel Club in 1903. Since then, its popularity increased both in exhibitions and in hunting environments. One particular highlight for the breed was when the dog “Bramshaw Bob”, owned by Lady Lorna Howe, received the BIS Crufts of 1932 and 1933. This breeder would again receive this esteemed award in 1937, this time with “Cheverella Ben of Banchory”. The Labrador Club of England was founded in 1916, a time when most Labradors were black, although yellows were beginning to be valued. The first yellow Labrador was registered in 1899, born of two black Labrador parents.
The first official standard of the breed was established in 1916 and was partially modified in 1950. The FCI standard in force is 2011-12 The AKC standard dates from 1994 and differs slightly from the FCI.
A dog’s ability to think far surpasses what these animals have been expected to accomplish so far, explained Dr. Stanley Coren, psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who has written several books on dog intelligence. Dogs not only have the ability to count but also have a rudimentary understanding of language, as well as a perception of other individuals. Dogs can also develop strategies to deceive their fellow canines and humans so that they can receive a reward more quickly.
According to Dr. Coren, in experiments designed to reward the animals as quickly as possible, dogs showed behaviors that clearly indicated the ability to plan and strategize. Dogs can judge what another individual, dog or human, will do next and behave accordingly in order to secure a reward. The dogs’ mathematical abilities allowed them to count as high as the number five and showed that they had a basic ability to add and subtract. It turns out, man’s best friend can even solve simple arithmetic operations like 1 plus 2, said Coren.
A dog’s intelligence consists of three parts: Instinct (innate behavior), adaptive intelligence (how well the dog learns from its environment to solve problems) and obedience (a kind of school learning).
However, not all dogs are equally intelligent, says Coren. An average dog can distinguish about 150 words, while the smartest could distinguish up to 250 words. According to Coren, 20 percent of all subjects are these “super dogs.” The most intelligent dog breed seems to be Border Collies, followed by Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers. Dobermans and Labrador retrievers follow somewhere after that.
A few years ago, the Border Collie “Rico” provided impressive proof of the intelligence of dogs. He had learned more than 200 terms and made an appearance on the popular German game show, “Wetten, dass?” (“Wanna Bet?”), as well as the trade magazine “Science”.
What comes as no surprise to dog owners, the experts only gradually take note of. According to Dr. Coren, during playtime, dogs are capable of intentionally deceiving both humans and other dogs in order to receive a reward. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”
For a more in-depth look at the intelligence of Labradors, check out our article, How Smart Is My Labrador?
Uses and Service
As Guide Dogs
Guide dogs are those that assist the visually impaired as they move from one place to another. When human beings first began training guide dogs, German Shepherd‘s were the preferred breed. Very quickly, however, it was discovered that the retriever breeds – especially the Labrador – were superior in this kind of work.
A Labrador’s coat is easily cared for. The dog’s height is perfect for working in a harness. His intelligence enables him to respond well in training, while his willing temperament will not show itself as too assertive. The Labrador generally gives a good impression as it does its work.
The ideal Guide Dog has been described as having the following qualities:
- Of a pleasing disposition.
- Not neurotic, shy or frightened.
- Reasonably energetic.
- Not hyperactive.
- Not aggressive (pure, apprehensive or protective).
- A low chasing instinct.
- Able to concentrate for long periods.
- Not easily distracted.
- Confident with and tolerant of children.
- Confident with and tolerant of other animals.
- Responsive to the human voice.
- Not sound-shy.
- Able to show reasonable initiative.
- Not too dominant or self-interested.
- Able to change environments and/or handlers without undue stress.
- Within the limits of body sensitivity.
- As free as possible from hereditary defects (physical).
The Training Process
An essential component in producing successful guide dogs is the puppy walking scheme. In the United States puppies are taken from their litter at eight weeks to be placed in a family home. The objective is for the puppy to be raised in a normal home environment in order to experience a variety of situations and to be completely socialized.
It is important that the puppy become accustomed to all kinds of traffic and to learn to walk slightly ahead of its companion, ignoring a wide range of environmental distractions. During this time the puppy is supervised while on walks and assessed for further training. Basic obedience training is also taught during this stage.
The dog must learn to walk at a pace that is acceptable to a blind companion. He must walk along the center of the payment, in a straight line, stopping at the curbside. He learns to avoid other pedestrians and any obstacles in the path of his owner. He also learns to negotiate any obstacles that block the entire payment, maneuvering around it and returning to the pavement once he has completely passed the obstacle.
In traffic training, the dog learns to develop a “critical“ zone around himself and his owner. This critical zone varies in size depending on the speed of an oncoming vehicle. The faster the vehicle, the larger the critical zone. Whenever a vehicle comes inside this critical zone, the dog learns to ignore and even disobey any command that would lead himself and his owner into harm’s way.
As Assistance Dogs
Assistance dogs help people with physical disabilities other than blindness. Hearing dogs for the deaf are one of the most common types of assistance dogs. Since the same physical and personality traits are not required for assistance dogs, they are often mixed breeds and are selected from animal shelters. Although, the Labrador’s easy-going and even temperament make it perfectly suited for this work.
Hearing dogs alert their deaf owners by making physical contact with their paw and then guide their companions to the source of the sound, such as a smoke alarm, telephone, or doorbell. They can even be trained to alert a deaf mother to her crying baby.
Labradors have proven themselves immensely helpful in this role which enhances the independence of their owner. They can also perform such tasks as operating light switches, elevator buttons, fetching items, and even pulling a wheelchair.
As Therapy Dogs
In the United States, Labradors have been used as therapy dogs as far back as 1980. For Labradors to be effective as therapy dogs they need to have matured past their rambunctious puppy stage.
They have been used to provide comfort for those in hospitals, hospices, as well as in homes for children and for the elderly. Labradors rank high on the list of breeds suitable as therapy dogs, due to their eager-to-please personalities and friendly nature.
One significant contribution therapy Labrador’s have made is to help those who suffer from a fear of dogs to overcome their phobia. Labradors are especially fit for this task due to their gentleness and calm temperament.
As Search and Rescue Dogs
Labradors began to prove themselves as “sniffer“ or search dogs when they were used by law officials to find illegal drugs in the 1960s and 1970s. It was also because of their heightened scenting ability that authorities began to turn to Labradors when they saw the need for explosive-finding dogs in the 1980s.
Their sense of smell, steady personality, retrieving instincts, and a keen attitude towards work made them perfectly suited for this job. Because the qualities of many gundog breeds make them fit for sniffer work, other types of dogs began to be used, such as the Spaniel for those situations where a lighter and more agile dog was needed.
The Labrador, however, remains the preferred choice for search-and-rescue (SAR) work. This versatile breed has also found its way into serving the Armed Forces, Prison Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Customs and Port Authorities. The Lab continues to prove itself in disaster and wilderness situations. In order for a dog to qualify for search and rescue training, it must be healthy, alert, courageous in unfamiliar situations, and focused in its abilities to search.
Dogs are trained to carefully move through debris and to alert their human partners to the presence of another person. Although training methods vary according to the dog’s assigned task, each dog must be reliable and must have a good relationship with his human partner.
If you’d like more info on how Labradors are used in the Service and Therapy field, you’ll love our article, Why Labs Excel as Service and Therapy Dogs.
Health, Fitness, and Nutrition
People have often disputed the best way to care for the health and diet of their pet. Most owners of a Labrador are aware of the role of nutrition in assisting good health and bone development. In past decades some of the meals recommended for a Labrador by the so-called “experts” have been anywhere from unbalanced and overly-complex, to downright harmful.
Our pets are not able to choose their own meals, so it is important to remember that they are completely dependent upon their owners for their nutrition. Even though dogs are often classified as carnivores, they are, on a practical level, omnivores. This means that they can get all their necessary nutrients from food consisting of either plant or animal sources.
An adult Labrador should receive an energy intake of approximately 30 kcal/lb (kilocalories/pound) body weight. Since 2015 dog food manufacturers are required to provide the calorie content of their product on the packaging. Knowing the energy density of the food you are serving your dog can help you to calculate how much he needs. Dog food companies also provide recommended serving amounts on their packaging.
For example, the label on the brand of dog food we personally buy says that one cup of their dog food contains a calorie content of 279 kcal ME (Metabolized Energy) per cup. Our Labrador, Trooper, weighs about 70 pounds. This means he should be receiving around 3-4 cups of dog food a day.
When choosing a diet for your Labrador it’s important that you keep in mind the energy requirements of your dog. Each Labrador has its own individual energy needs. The greater their activity the more energy they use. These energy levels can vary between dogs of the same activity level, gender, age, and even breed. It is possible for two Labradors born to the same litter to have unique tendencies toward leanness or obesity, even with the same rate of food consumption between them.
Some Labradors may need either a high-energy or low-energy diet to meet their nutritional needs. Do not make the mistake of thinking that if a diet is good for a human being it must be suitable for a dog. Dogs and humans have different nutritional needs. Vitamin C, for example, is an important component in a human’s diet, but under normal circumstances, a dog’s body can synthesize its own vitamin C and is therefore not necessary as a dietary component.
The Labrador is a robust breed with a relatively long life expectancy. However, it is subject to some health concerns. The most common health problems in the Labrador Retriever are:
- Joint problems (hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, osteochondritis)
- Eye problems (cataract, progressive retinal atrophy, retinal dysplasia)
- gastric dilation
- Hereditary myopathy (a neuromuscular disorder)
In one sense, Labradors are very low-maintenance. They are happy, healthy dogs who are full of life, affectionate with other people and dogs, and who are easy to groom, feed, and to travel with.
But left untrained and to themselves, they can become anxious, self-occupied, and potentially destructive. A Labrador can be as guilty as any other breed at jumping up on people, stealing food, pulling on his leash, or any of the other behaviors that are so deplorable in other dogs. All this to say, your Labrador needs a leader, and that leader must be you!
You will receive from your dog the level of training that you invest in him. If you put in the time and effort to train your Labrador, the result will be a delightful companion who is the envy of everyone he encounters.
It is important to start training as early as possible with your Labrador. If your dog is only a puppy you may be tempted to wait and let him grow up a little before you start training. This kind of thinking is a mistake. A puppy is able to learn much more information and at a more rapid pace than an adult Labrador.
It is better for your puppy to learn as early as possible what behavior is required of him. What follows is a list of basic but crucial behaviors to teach your Labrador.
Coming when he is called is probably the most important command a Labrador puppy can learn. Food will most likely be your best tool in teaching your puppy this crucial command.
He will most likely be at your feet when you prepare his food. Use this to your advantage and while you have his attention move some distance away and call the puppy to you. He will undoubtedly respond to your call. He will be likely to sit if you hold the bowl just above his head. With this method, you have already taught him two commands. Come and sit.
Of course, at this point, he is simply fixated on the food. It will take some time for your verbal commands to be imprinted on his memory. Repeat this process throughout the day and have treats close at hand to reward him when he behaves correctly.
You can also keep treats in a small tin and rattle it to attract his attention if he is otherwise occupied. If necessary, get down on his level and practice the come and sit commands. Continue to reward his obedience with verbal praise, petting, and treats.
Making sure to always include pets and verbal praise will allow you to eventually wean your puppy off continual food treats while still reinforcing his good behavior with a reward. You don’t want your puppy to be dependent upon food bribes into adulthood.
This command means that the dog stays in the position he is left in until his owner returns. Begin teaching this command while he is on his leash. This kind of training is always a test in trust and your dog should be assured you will return before allowing him to move from his position. Your goal is to get your puppy to stay in the same position for at least two minutes. Don’t attempt to move away yet, but remain with him while he is on his leash and reassure him with calming words, like “good boy.”
Once your puppy can stay standing or seated for at least two minutes you’re ready to move onto the next phase without the leash.
Start with your puppy off his leash and in a seated position. Place your palm open and in front of him for a moment and say, “stay.“ Don’t use his name during this exercise. This might confuse him into thinking you want him to come to you.
After giving him the signal, put your hand down and stand up straight. Wait a moment and then say, “good stay!“ then give him a treat. While he is enjoying his treat, show him the hand signal again and give the verbal command, “stay.“ Then remain in front of him for a few more seconds, Then give another verbal praise and reward.
Repeat this exercise a few more times, increasing the amount of time he has to stay with each attempt. You can then release him from his position by patting your leg, calling him to you, and allowing him to roam freely.
If your puppy moves while in a stay position, immediately reposition him to where he was before he moved.
It is instinctive for Labradors to carry things in their mouth. You can use this fact in teaching him to fetch and drop an object for you. This command naturally follows coming when called.
When the puppy has something in his mouth, get down on his level and call him to you. When he comes to take the item from his mouth gently. Avoid letting him drop it or run past you when called. When he learns to allow you to remove the item from his mouth, reward him in the usual manner with verbal praise, petting, and treats.
Walking with a Loose Leash
Different dogs react to a leash differently. Some will pay it no mind while others will fight against it. You will teach this to your Labrador gradually and in stages. Practice this in your home before the situation arises while on an outdoor walk.
Walk with your puppy a few steps at a time, then engage him with a toy or a treat. You are teaching him to stay focused on you rather than on curious smells or something up ahead he may want to chase.
For those Labrador puppies that do not particularly like the leash at first, an alternate method is to hold a treat out that you have hidden in your hand in front of his nose. His attention will remain fixated on the treat making the beginning of the walk a pleasant experience for him.
Lying down on command is one of the simplest behaviors to teach Labrador puppies and the most satisfying for spectators to observe. Because you have already taught your puppy to sit for his food, you can build upon this reinforcement by using a treat to teach him to lie down.
While your puppy is seated, move it from his nose down to the ground, placing it several inches from his front paws. This will prompt him to lie down to receive the treat. Say, “down,” combined with the hand signal of your palm face-down as you perform this training. Be sure to reward him with plenty of verbal praise when he demonstrates the correct behavior.
As mentioned before, after he has repeatedly obeyed the command, you can eventually remove the treat reward from your training and simply use the hand signal. Try keeping him in the down position for a little longer each time you practice this command.
Socialization and Group Training
You may be tempted to think that your puppy is too young to begin socializing with other dogs. But as we have explained, the earlier you begin training the better. The same is true with socialization. Training your puppy to socialize as early as possible can prevent a myriad of unpleasant situations in the future.
Look for opportunities to take your puppy with you when you go out. Many pet stores offer dog training groups during the week. Because these kinds of classes are popular and tend to fill up quickly, you will probably have to book the class ahead of time. Also, check with your vet before you attempt this in order to discuss any health concerns.
You can begin by attending the first class without your puppy. This will help you decide for yourself whether the class is worth taking. If the class is not to your liking, you can simply look for another. The best group classes will be those that offer information on general care and that help you to solve any dog training problems you may have.
You have four primary aids to help train your dog.
- Food (or sometimes a toy)
- Your touch
- His leash
- Your voice
As your puppy learns to behave properly, you can remove food as a reward from your training and continue to use hand signals, touch, and voice commands. After you have removed the leash from your puppy and put some distance between you, your voice is the only training aid you have left.
Avoid shouting at your puppy. They will eventually learn to ignore it, and shouting for long periods of time is not good for your dog or your voice. Speaking at a regular audible level Will be perfectly effective on your puppy.
Also, avoid endlessly repeating commands, such as “down, down, down, down.” This is another type of command your puppy can learn to ignore. It’s important that he understands that a command is given only once and must be obeyed immediately.
Have Some Fun Too!
It’s also important to understand that life with a puppy is not all about training. Remember that you brought your dog into your home to be a joyful addition to your family. Don’t neglect regular play time where your puppy can enjoy just being a puppy.
We go more in-depth into Labrador command in our article, 8 Basic Commands Every Labrador Should Know.
A good Labrador owner must be available to spend several hours a week with his/her Lab in things like walking, physical activity, and games. The Labrador Retriever does not cope well with being alone; its owner must be someone who is present and who is not constantly away from home.
Although the Labrador Retriever can adapt to all types of owners, it will especially prefer itself in a family that will allow it lots of time to walk, run, and play.
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