Almost everyone loves Labrador Retrievers, and Labs love anyone worth loving. For decades, the Labrador Retriever has ranked as the most popular dog breed — not only in the United States but also in England, Australia and other countries around the world. While not as brilliant as a Border Collie or as naturally obedient as a Golden Retriever, the Labrador combines intelligence and eagerness to please in an almost perfect balance, making him the ideal pet for active, fun-loving families.
What makes the Lab such a great dog? The secret lies in his history and remarkable genes. Understanding the Labrador’s heritage offers a major step toward shaping his future.
Despite his current popularity as a family dog, the original Labrador Retriever was not a household pet from the outset. Historically, he was a versatile, hardworking dog who functioned in a variety of hunting situations, accompanying hunters out in the open field and retrieving game. Rightfully known in hunting circles as “the king of the retrievers,” the Labrador was — and still is — a truly great working dog.
Some Labrador Retrievers still perform their historical duties; the vast majority, however, doesn’t know a mallard from a magpie and has never been near a field trial, let alone a real hunt. Fortunately, the intelligent, affable, highly adaptable Labrador accepted this lifestyle change with admirable aplomb. As long as owners remain mindful of this breed’s natural aptitude as a hunter, training should proceed swimmingly.
Labradors serve as water retrievers. While the descriptive term “water retriever” doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about this breed, it says a lot. What does it mean to be a water dog? Labs like to swim, and they are well equipped to do so. They have webbed feet, water-repellent coats and otterlike tails that they use as rudders. The happiest Labs have free and frequent access to water, even during cold weather. (For some reason, however, their passion for water doesn’t always make them more amenable to bathing — an ongoing need, thanks to the strong, oily smell that Labs exude when they go unwashed for a period of time.)
Swimming uses a tremendous amount of energy (especially in cold water), and a Lab who swims often becomes much quieter and better behaved than one deprived of his favorite activity. Daily swims aren’t available to most Labs, however, so your dog might need to expend his energy through other exercises such as running, playing and retrieving. “Fetch” is a classic game, although flying disc and agility exercises also offer good choices. If you have access to a safe water source — one without riptides, sharks and pollution — you can combine a game of fetch with a refreshing swim. Labrador Retrievers hail from Canada and suffer in hot weather when unable to swim, so they benefit greatly from air conditioning.
The latter half of the Labrador’s moniker, “retriever,” explains the breed’s superb disposition, trainability and desire to work with people. Labs love all kinds of people and food with almost equal fervor. During training, they respond to food and play rewards with equal enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm is the Labrador’s trademark characteristic. Legendarily good-natured, a stunning 91.8 percent of Labrador Retrievers tested have passed the American Temperament Test, offered by American Temperament Test Society. It assesses different aspects of canine temperament — such as stability, shyness, aggression and friendliness — and aims to promote the betterment of breeds.
Labs don’t achieve emotional maturity until about the age of 3, so you can expect a boisterous dog for a long time. Curiously enough, for working purposes, Labs mature quickly and can hunt successfully before they reach 1 year old.
Bred to work closely with human companions, retrievers’ specific assignment involves locating shot game and bringing it to the hunter. This requires a steady, observant and loyal dog — characteristics that come in handy when game is inaccessible.
Bred to behave in a quiet, even stealthy manner in the field, Labs are not prone to barking at strangers, and they seldom create noise problems. They will, however, sound the alarm when something truly goes wrong.
Labrador Retrievers rank among the world’s smartest dog breeds — as you undoubtedly know by now. Even more interestingly, the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” definitely does not apply to Labradors; unlike most breeds, they continue to learn throughout their lives.
What’s going on inside your Lab’s brain? It might not be string theory, macroeconomics or Zeno’s paradox. It’s a lot better than that, in fact. It’s tail-wagging, water-splashing, dessert-eating, ball-fetching, people-loving fun!