With its loyal nature and gentle manners, the Labrador Retriever has created its own place in British homes.
Ears flapping, tail wagging, a large, handsome yellow dog bounds across a field. Legs stretched, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, he lopes up to his owner.
This is a Labrador, a dog that in the last 100 years has developed from an animal trained to retrieve shot birds, to a welcome family pet. Their soft mouths, gentle manners and willingness to learn made them perfect gun dogs. Today, these attributes have made them the most popular dog in Britain.
Full of energy, with a powerful tail that moves in enthusiastic sweeps, the Labrador is ideally suited to life in the countryside. This is an animal that loves nothing better than a long and energetic walk through fields and woodland. Their keen noses rarely leave the ground as they run head down, sniffing the scent trails of wild animals and birds. With more than 220 million olfactory receptors, compared to a human’s five million, their sense of smell is highly developed. Once they pick up a scent, they will try to follow it until they get to the origin. It is this acute sense of smell that has seen them used in drug and mine detection, as well as search and rescue.
A tireless swimmer, the Labrador is perfectly at home in water. Its short, thick coat and water-resistant undercoat protect it from cold and wet. The powerful tail acts as a rudder, often slapping the water as the dog changes direction.
This love of water reflects the dog’s ancestry. It is believed to have originated in the Canadian territories of Newfoundland and Labrador as the St John’s water dog. Fishermen there used these similar-looking animals to retrieve fish and other items dropped overboard. In the 19th century, they were brought to England to be crossed with the working gun dogs of the time. It was hoped this would improve their nose for scent as well as their retrieving skills.
In 1903 the breed was recognised by the Kennel Club as a result of efforts by the Earl of Malmesbury. Their retrieving ability and skill in water impressed him so much that he devoted himself to developing and stabilising the breed. The dog grew quickly in popularity. In 1912, there were 281 registered with the Kennel Club. Ten years later that number had risen to 916. The breed club was formed in 1916, and the Yellow Labrador Club in 1925. In 2014, more than 34,700 Labradors were registered with the Kennel Club. This is more than the second and third placed breeds combined.
Happy in work or home
The modern dog has become a multi-purpose animal. A highly social creature, its confident, outgoing, trustworthy disposition makes it an excellent family pet. At the same time, it is still used as a gundog, excelling at formal shoots, rough shoots and in field trials. Their gentle nature makes them especially popular in the role of assistance dogs. They are frequently trained as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, or to assist owners with disabilities. Labradors also make excellent therapy dogs for visiting hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.
“As a breed, Labradors have such a gentle nature,” says owner Catherine Gray. “Labradors have been a part of my family since I was a girl. My parents still keep them and now I have my own, a three-year-old dog called Archie. They are extremely loyal. The bond I have with Archie means he loves to be with me all the time. He never wanders off or out of sight.”
A range of colours
These are large and strongly built dogs, with males measuring up to 22in (56cm) at the withers, females slightly smaller. Only black, yellow and chocolate coats are recognised by the Kennel Club. The yellow, rather than golden, Labrador can range in colour, from a light blonde shade through to fox red. The chocolate Labrador was a late arrival, only becoming established in the 1930s. Before then, they were often culled from a litter.
The skull is broad, with pendant-like ears set back and hanging down close to the head. The nose is wide and varies in colour depending on the shade of the coat. Yellow and chocolate Labradors tend towards a lighter-coloured nose than the black-coated, black-nosed dogs. The muzzle is wide and the bite should meet in a scissor precision. This means the upper teeth closely overlap the lower teeth, and are set square to the jaws. It is this that results in what is termed a ‘soft mouth’, enabling the dog to hold game firmly but gently when working in the field.
The eyes are medium in size and brown or hazel in colour. They express both the breed’s intelligence and gentle nature. The neck is powerful and the chest wide and deep. The body has well-sprung barrel ribs with no sloping in the hindquarters towards the tail.
The short coat has no feathering and is easy to care for. This is a breed that sheds its coat easily. A once-a-week thorough groom helps keep it in good condition and removes loose hair.
Dogs intended for the show ring tend to be heavier, with shorter legs than those bred for the field. The latter are longer-legged with a more lithe and athletic build. The heads may be slightly narrower.
How colour is determined
The colour of a chocolate or black Labrador’s coat is determined by “bee” genes, one of which is inherited from each parent. There are two types, B and b. The B gene is dominant, producing the black coat. The recessive b gene causes the brown or chocolate coat. A dog with a pair of B genes, or one B and one b gene will be black. This is because the dominant gene overrides the recessive gene. A dog with two b genes will have a chocolate coat. Other genes are responsible for the yellow colour.
Labradors are easy dogs to feed, rarely fussy over food. It is often claimed they will eat anything, including apparently non-edible items. This hearty appetite, though, can lead to problems with weight gain if the dog is overfed, offered too many table scraps and under-exercised.
Labradors are long-lived, reaching 12-14 years of age. Carrying excess weight, however, puts joints under unnecessary stress, resulting in problems such as arthritis. It also adds pressure on the heart and creates an increased likelihood of developing diabetes. All this may result in an unhealthy dog with a shortened lifespan.
An active life
This tendency to weight gain means they need an active owner. With its background as a working dog, the Labrador needs its energy channelled with proper training and attention. If they are allowed to become bored, they can be destructive. This is a breed that particularly benefits from a strong pack leader. Its devotion to its leader and eagerness to please is what makes the dog easy to train.
The Labrador’s perfect day would include up to two hours of exercise. Their retrieving instinct means they will happily chase a ball, returning to have it thrown again and again. The owner will tire of this long before the fit and healthy dog. The day would end with the dog curled up in front of a blazing fire, surrounded by his human family.
Today, whether working in the field or being a loyal member of a family, the Labrador continues to make its presence felt. Its gentle nature and ever-wagging tail means it has a well-deserved and much-loved place in many homes. It has become the archetypal dog of the British countryside.
Breeding and health
The best age for a bitch to have a litter of puppies is between two and four years of age. By this stage she will be fully mature, both physically and mentally, while still retaining her youth. She must be fully fit and in the very best of health. This will help her cope with the extra demands placed on her by pregnancy and birth and the subsequent nurturing of the puppies.
A female has her first season any time from six months of age onwards. The average is between nine and 12 months, although it can be 18 to 24 months for some larger animals.
On average, they give birth to six to eight puppies, after approximately 63 days gestation. Born blind and deaf, the puppies may be anything from 7–14oz (200-400g) in weight, depending on the size of the litter. Those in large litters are much smaller.
The eyes open at 10-14 days and the ears start to function when the puppy is 13-17 days old. Weaning starts after the puppies are three-and-a-half weeks to four weeks old. It is usually complete by the time the puppies are six weeks of age.
Generally healthy, they can, however, be prone to eye problems such as cataracts. They may also develop Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), which gradually causes a deterioration of the retina. This leads to night blindness and eventually a complete loss of vision. Because of their strong sense of smell, they can manage extremely well, even if blind.
Other inherited problems include hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, caused by a malformation of the joints. In hip dysplasia, the femur, or leg bone, fits poorly in the socket. This leads to pain and lameness when the dog moves. Elbow dysplasia is an umbrella term for several problems, but in most cases an abnormality in the joint leads to minute stress fractures. Both conditions lead to premature arthritis and in some cases the affected dog may become severely disabled. The Kennel Club and the British Veterinary Association offer screening for both hip and elbow dysplasia. This allows breeders to identify dogs that are free of the condition.
Words: Karen Youngs Photography: Richard Faulks