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How important is the colour of a gundog’s coat?

David Tomlinson looks at the history behind the kaleidoscope of canine colours

Labrador colours

Labradors remain the dominant breed

As we all know, sound working-bred spaniel puppies are in high demand at the moment, so I was delighted to be able to tip off a friend about a litter I had heard about.
She arranged to see them and I was sure she would end up buying one. I gave her a call the day after the viewing. “Super puppies,” she confirmed, “but they were the wrong colour. I really want a liver-and-white bitch, not black and white.” I haven’t heard whether she has since regretted her decision but weeks later she is still looking for the perfect puppy.
We have all heard the old saying that a good horse can’t be a bad colour, but I’ve known hunting people who would never have a chestnut because they are reputed to have a fiery temperament. The only horse I’ve owned was a handsome chestnut hunter called Charlie, but he wasn’t fiery and the only temperamental thing about him was a deep mistrust of donkeys. It didn’t matter what colour the donkeys were, either.

Labrador colours

I’m convinced that, like horses, a good dog can’t be a bad colour, but it’s true that most of us have strong preferences when it comes to the colour of our dogs. The majority of Labrador owners I know are a bit like Henry Ford when it comes to colour. He famously remarked: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour he wants, so long as it is black.”
He said that in 1909, when almost every Labrador was black, though the first recorded yellow Labrador, a dog called Ben, bred by a Major Radclyffe, had been born 10 years before.
There are no surviving photographs of Ben, but it is generally thought that he was a dark yellow, possibly similar to the fox-red dogs that are popular today. Whether all yellow Labradors are descendants of Ben is debatable, but possible.
Over time more Labrador colours appeared. It took some time for yellow Labradors to catch on. The formation of the Yellow Labrador Club in 1924 certainly helped, for its aim was to “encourage the breeding of pure yellow Labradors”. The club thrives today and still holds segregated trials from which black labradors are barred on grounds of colour.
Arthritis in dogs

A chocolate Labrador

Chocolate Labradors

Chocolate Labradors are often regarded as a recent development, but the first were bred in the Buccleuch kennels towards the end of the 19th century. What happened to them is a mystery, but my guess is that they were either knocked on the head at birth or given away, as black was the desired colour. It wasn’t until the 1930s that liver became an accepted colour but it’s only become popular in the past 25 years, helped perhaps by a change of name from for the Labrador colours from liver to chocolate. Not many people eat liver these days, but most like chocolate.
There’s a widespread fallacy that chocolate Labradors are thick, even untrainable as gundogs, but the truth is the great majority are of show stock, so lack both the conformation and the breeding to be competent workers. There are exceptions. Ged Leeson’s chocolate dog Pintail Hector of Styleside (Coke) not only qualified for the 2008 IGL Retriever Championship, but also narrowly missed becoming a FTCh. I spent a day shooting with Coke. He was the equal of any black Labrador I’ve seen.
I have yet to see a so-called silver Labrador in the shooting field. It’s not one of the Labrador colours recognised by the Kennel Club, but it first appeared in the US and has now reached Britain. Silver isn’t the best adjective as these dogs look very much like Weimaraners and there have been suggestions that they have Weimaraner blood in their ancestry. There’s serious opposition to them.
silver Labrador

The silver Labrador is certainly controversial

Most gundog colours evolved because they were a satisfactory shade in the shooting field. Breeders favoured certain colours and these were established by selective breeding. The flashy white springers you see in trials today didn’t exist a century ago. Golden retrievers used to be golden — and most working-bred examples still are — not the pale cream that is now so popular.
One of our few native gundogs that comes in a single colour is the Irish water spaniel (IWS). The Kennel Club’s breed standard describes it as “rich, dark liver with purplish tint or bloom”. This makes identification of individuals difficult and I was amused to discover on an IWS training day that most owners can recognise their dogs when they are dry but it’s a different matter when they are wet.
Some colours seem to work better with certain breeds. A black-and-white Labrador would be unthinkable, while a solid black English springer wouldn’t be right either, though solid-coated field spaniels do please the eye.
spaniel colours

Two colours, same breed

I don’t like solid black German shorthaired pointers — they look too much like Labradors — but they have become increasingly popular in recent years. For nearly 40 years, I’ve had black-and-white English springers. I still have a bias for black and white, but my sprocker Emma is a classic liver and white and I wouldn’t want her any other colour. ‘