From show dogs to gundogs to family pets, Labradors come in all sizes and shapes. Charlie Thorburn considers what makes the perfect Labrador
If you wanted to start an argument at a game fair, you couldn’t go far wrong with initiating a discussion about what the perfect Labrador should look like. Even the most casual countryside observer will be aware that there is huge variety in the breed.
As it is the most popular pedigree dog in the world, many of us will have some experience of Labradors. Around 35,000 Labs are registered with the British Kennel Club each year, compared with 9,000 springer spaniels. In the US, the Labrador has ranked number one for 26 years in a row.
Labrador retrievers were originally called the lesser Newfoundland or the St John’s water dog. They were brought back from North America separately by the Earl of Malmesbury and the Duke of Buccleuch, and both men had the same intention of using their dogs as sporting dogs.
Having had these dogs for a number of years, the two men met on a shoot in the 1880s. Subsequently, the Earl ended up giving the Duke a couple of males from his kennel to breed with females from the Buccleuch kennel. This was the start of the Labrador and it was officially recognised by the Kennel Club in 1903.
The Labrador grew in popularity because its short, thick coat was deemed preferential to the longer, higher-maintenance coats of some of the other retriever breeds. The Kennel Club, which set the breed standard, describes the Labrador as: “Strongly built, short-coupled, very active; broad in skull; broad and deep through chest and ribs; broad and strong over loins and hindquarters.” The Labrador should not have excessive body weight or excessive substance and should have an “otter tail”, which is thick at the base and carried low.
But if this is the standard set by the governing body of all our breeds and competitions, why do we see such a variety of registered pedigree Labradors? Dogs at a field trial can sometimes resemble a whippet cross. Go to a show ring and you will see a seemingly short-legged, unfit lump that could not jump a five-bar gate. The answer is people and our perceptions.
Labradors were created by two aristocrats in their private kennels. The Earl and the Duke originally had an image of what they wanted to produce and others have added their own stamp, for better or worse. In addition to selective breeding, other breeds have undoubtedly been crossed with the Labrador to try to improve the breed.
Strengths and weaknesses
When breeding a Labrador at our Mordor Gundogs kennels in Perth, we don’t use some new up-and-coming champion or championship winner — we look at our bitch’s strengths and weaknesses and try to find a dog that complements them. Just because a female is attractive and a good worker does not mean she will produce good offspring. We like to keep a number of our puppies to train to make sure they are the type we want to produce.
We are not only looking for a healthy dog — we also want a kind, easy-going temperament. We like a strong, good-looking dog with a good double coat as well as one that is keen to learn and please. Gentle dogs are generally preferred, but we are careful not to mate two soft dogs for fear of producing timid puppies.
A Lab that does not look like a Lab is just not a Lab. However, a Lab that cannot jump a fence with ease, do a full day on a grouse moor and be ready for another, is also not a Lab.
A Lab needs to be fit and active but the modern obsession with speed, often confused with drive, is a misplaced one. When working thick cover or heather, looking for a tucked-in wounded bird, speed can be a bad thing. The fast dog will often be eye-wiped by the steady, methodical pace of the traditional Lab. I want level-headed reliability.
In the Labrador world, showing and field trialling are small fry. In the middle you have the average family Labrador. Some work, most don’t, but they comprise a large proportion of the Labradors out there today. What is important is that this large majority of owners know what they are looking for when buying a Labrador.
A championship-winning field trial dog or a best-in-breed show-winning dog does not necessarily produce good working pets or family dogs. Ultimately, to the pet owner of the Labrador, the big draw is temperament — and yet the breed standard does not cover it.
When trying to produce the perfect dog — and we must strive for perfection when breeding — we must make compromises. Take, for example, conformation and athleticism. A Labrador must be able to run and jump and have good stamina. Not every dog needs to be like Sir Mo Farah, but neither should they be built like a sumo wrestler.
What about trainability and confidence? Bold, confident dogs might do well in competition as they have the drive to handle the rigours of trials. Yet if they are too headstrong, most trainers will find them a handful. An overly soft-natured dog might be easy to train, but might be too timid to ever be an outstanding worker in the field.
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So how do we rank all these factors into the order of importance when choosing a puppy or a mate for our dog? Ultimately, it comes back to what characteristics we think are the most important.
I would encourage those breeding from their Labrador to spend time picking a mate. Think about your dog, her family and what you are trying to produce your puppies for, and then find a dog to complement her.
Meet the dog beforehand, learn about his temperament and have a good look at him. Ask to see some of his progeny. What you are breeding will greatly influence the new owners’ lives, so have the decency to do your bit to help that be a good experience.