Water dogs have been important to Canadian fishermen since the 1600s. Dogs were used for everything from retrieving nets to towing boats. Short-haired dogs were preferred, as their coats did not collect ice, but few other specifications were viewed as important. Depending on where they were from, Canadian dogs were referred to as Newfoundlands, Labradors, or St. John’s Dogs.
Because the Canadian water dogs also had an aptitude for fetching ducks out of the water, English ships that visited North America often brought back a few dogs for hunting purposes. By the early 1800s, one man in particular had taken a fancy to the Canadian retrievers. This was the second Earl of Malmesbury. Finding them to be perfect hunting companions, he had several imported and became the first serious breeder.
It was fortunate for the water dogs that they found a patron at this time, as during the 1800s a heavy tax was placed on dogs in Canada, driving them nearly to extinction in that country. At roughly the same time, further importations became virtually impossible as strict quarantine laws were implemented in England. The Flat-Coated Retriever was the most popular hunting dog among most of the aristocracy, so breeding short-haired water dogs ended up being primarily a family project.
The third Earl of Malmesbury carried on his father’s work with the assistance of his friends, the Duke of Buccleuch and the Earl of Home. The Earl of Malmesbury set the stage for the modern breed in two ways:
- Giving it a name (Labrador, for some unknown reason, even though his dogs primarily traced back to Newfoundland).
- Producing the foundation animals of the breed, Avon and Ned, which the Duke of Buccleuch bred to other Canadian water dogs. Most modern Labrador Retrievers trace back to Avon, Ned, and the duke’s dogs.
By 1903, the Labrador Retriever was distinctive enough to be recognized by the Kennel Club in England. At first, nearly all of the Labs recognized were black, as that color was fashionable among the gentry. However, a dog named Ben of Hyde was born in 1899 and went on to become the first registered yellow Lab in history.
The AKC recognized the Labrador as early as 1917, despite the fact that the breed was barely established and hardly known on our shores at the time. However, the AKC gave the Lab sufficient press to spark an interest among hunters. From the late 1920s into the 1930s, numerous retrievers were imported, accompanied by Scottish retriever trainers. These early Labs were typically considered both show and working dogs. There was no dichotomy in the breed in those days.
The Labrador Retriever skyrocketed to popularity after World War II, probably because it was not just a good hunting dog but an outstanding pet. It reached the very top position in AKC registration statistics in 1991, and has remained there ever since. The population of Labradors in America is mind-boggling—the AKC alone registers over 100,000 every year, and we can only speculate on the number of Labs that aren’t registered.
There is little that a Lab can’t do. He can serve man by barking at intruders, guiding the blind, sniffing out bombs, rescuing drowning victims from the water, and searching for missing persons. He can become a partner in adventure, whether that is hiking, jogging, or sledding. He can perform with style in canine sports ranging from obedience to agility. Or he can just cuddle up on the couch and be a friend.
Note that, these days, there is a pronounced divide between show and working bloodlines. The show bloodlines (sometimes incorrectly called “English”) are less athletic than their field counterparts due to their stockier build. Dual-purpose Labradors are a thing of the past.
If you are looking for a big, mellow, laid-back dog full of fun, the Labrador Retriever may be the perfect choice for you. While he is steady and even-tempered, he is always ready to play. Two of his favorite things in life are children and water. Make his day complete by giving him something to retrieve. (In fact, unless properly trained, he may absent-mindedly take people’s hands in his mouth just for the sake of carrying something around.)
Don’t be fooled by his authoritative bark—the Labrador Retriever loves everyone. He is a watchdog that likes to have a key position on the welcoming committee. His sweet, outgoing nature makes him a good choice in homes with other pets, including cats and other dogs.
Note, however, that even the Lab needs something to do. He is energetic and athletic. Left to his own devices, he may chew furniture, go dumpster-diving, or even wander out of the yard in search of adventure. However, he loves human companionship and is eager to please. Meet his requirements for physical and social activity by including him in your daily life.
Some breeders feel that females are more independent than males, while all Lab owners agree that puppies can be a real handful. While they don’t mean any harm, a Lab under two or three years of age can accidentally injure the young and the old with their over-zealous greetings. They also need plenty of toys and games of fetch to satisfy their instinct to chew.
Personalities also vary with bloodline. The show dogs tend to be the easy-going couch potatoes, while the hunting dogs are the perpetual motion machines.
A working Labrador Retriever in the field is incredibly single-minded. He can work ahead of the hunter to flush upland game, or he can swim to retrieve fallen waterfowl. He’s not particular—any task that combines water and retrieving is his favorite thing to do.
Overall, the Labrador Retriever is a healthy breed. Many of his difficulties can be avoided by paying attention to his weight. Most Labs have a genetic defect that causes an appetite disproportionate to their calorie needs. At the same time, this defect causes them to gain weight easily. The result is that many, many Labs are obese, which can lead to more severe conditions such as diabetes and joint problems. That appetite can also get Labs in trouble through eating inedible objects.
The most common health problems in Labs are:
- Retinal dysplasia.
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Patellar luxation (slipped kneecaps).
- Osteochondritis dissecans, a painful joint condition in which cartilage and bones die and crack.
- Skin allergies.
- Mast cell tumors.
Dogs that spend a considerable amount of time in the water need special care. Regularly clean your Lab’s ears after a swim to prevent ear infections. Also note that some Labs experience an unusual condition after swimming or roughhousing called “cold tail.” In this condition, the dog’s tail abruptly goes limp, hanging down straight or at an unusual angle. Although it may irritate the dog for a while, cold tail does not appear to be serious, probably being similar to a sprain. It will correct itself in a few days.
- Adaptability to most lifestyles.
- Suitability for families with children and other pets.
- Ability to get along with strangers.
- Minimal barking.
- Minimal grooming needs.
- Cold tolerance.
- Few health problems.
- Keen nose.
- Abundance of irresponsible breeders (beware of breeders touting rare colors, as these people are usually just taking advantage of a genetic mutation to make a fast dollar).
- Ability as an escape artist.
- Need for plenty of attention.
- Exercise needs.
- Seasonal shedding.
- Susceptibility to obesity.