Labrador Retriever

Gemma Gaitskell
Dr Gemma Gaitskell (BVetMed MSc MRCVS, Royal Veterinary College, London)
Photo of adult Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever is a medium sized outgoing, friendly and charismatic dog which belongs to the gundog group of breeds. Originally bred to retrieve game, the Labrador has continued to show an aptitude for many different jobs, such as companions, assistance, and sniffer dogs. Today they contribute to society in these working roles but are also the most popular dog breed in numerous countries as companion dogs.

Labradors are quick to learn and aim to please as well as being easily motivated by food, which makes them highly trainable. They are sociable dogs and get on well with other pets and are notoriously good natured and tolerant with children. The Labrador is a high-energy breed and plenty of exercise should be encouraged to provide mental stimulation and combat a propensity to gain weight. The breed can suffer from some health problems but screening schemes are in place in an attempt to reduce their prevalence.

About & History

The Labrador Retriever comes from Canada. Its name is misleading as it is in fact from Newfoundland and not Labrador. The breed originated from the crossing of smaller water dogs with large Newfoundland’s by fishermen to create the St. John’s Retriever, the Labradors early ancestor. These initial Labradors or St John’s Retrievers were first brought to England in the 1820s. Towards the end of the 1800´s they became known as a distinctive breed under the name Labrador Retriever, resembling the dogs of today. Labradors were initially used as gundogs to retrieve fowl during shoots both on land and in water and were famed for their sense of smell.

The second Earl of Malmesbury, the tenth and twelfth Earls of Home and the sixth Duke of Buccleuch were largely responsible for defining and developing the breed. Early Labradors were all black and other colours were considered undesirable until the end of the 1800´s when a yellow Labrador was registered. In the 1930s, the chocolate Labrador began to be accepted. Interestingly, the early yellow Labradors which were originally recognised were not the pale creamy shades which are common today but a darker gold red colour. Today there is also a notable difference between the physique of field and show Labradors.

Nowadays the Labrador is still widely used as a gundog but is also very successful in other fields. It is one of the most popular breeds for use as a guide and assistance dog and also as rescue and sniffer dogs. The Labrador continues to be an extremely well-liked dog around the world due to its versatility and is still the most popular dog in numerous countries, including both the UK and USA.


Labrador Retriever Large Photo

The first Labradors were black but later on other solid colours have become acceptable within the breed.

  • Black
  • Chocolate
  • Liver
  • Yellow

Note that champagne, charcoal and silver are colours that do exist but are not accepted for registration in the UK Kennel Club. The only marking permitted is a small white spot on the chest. The American Kennel Club does not recognise liver as a colour.

The Labradors coat is short but dense and compact and should not be fluffy or wavy, with a water-resistant undercoat. Their tail is distinctive, with an ‘Otter’ like resemblance, being noticeably thicker at the base with the same hair coat as on the body.

The Labrador is a medium sized breed, which should measure 55-57 cm (21.5-22.5 at the withers), with females slightly smaller than males. The breed should be agile and athletic and should not be allowed to become overweight. It has a strong neck leading down to a broad chest. The topline should be level with a powerful well-developed backend. Hocks that are turned inwards are a fault and considered undesirable.

They should move freely, whilst covering ground and keeping their body straight. To a large degree any changes to the breed, which could prevent the Labrador from doing its traditional work as a retriever, are judged as undesirable.

The Labrador has a well-defined face, which is broad with a strong jaw and scissor bite. The eyes should be medium sized, expressive and either brown or hazel in colour with black pigmentation in the skin around them. Ears should not be too large and should fold over close to the head, although generally they are set far back. The Labrador is renowned for it’s ‘soft’ and gentle mouth, which is why it excels at retrieving fowl without causing any damage.

Differences between countries tend to be related to height however there are more adaptations in the American Kennel breed standard than in the UK Kennel Club for two different types of Labrador – the show dog and the field or working dog. Field Labradors are often more athletic and agile with a lighter build and longer legs. Show Labradors are more thick set with a wider head and neck.

Character & Temperament

The Labrador Retriever is of extremely good nature. The breed is intelligent, outgoing and friendly and exceptionally good with children. As well as being highly sociable with people the breed also tends to get on well with other dogs.

Labradors are not especially prone to separation anxiety, however, this is also affected by training and acclimatisation from a young age, learning that being left alone is not a cause for worry. Due to their friendly and gregarious nature Labradors do not make particularly good guard dogs.

The difference between show and field lines is also often reflected in energy and character. Show Labradors are often calmer and less energetic. This may make them more appropriate as family companion pets as opposed to a field line which is better suited to a working home.


Photo of Labrador Retriever puppy

Labradors are highly trainable dogs, which are intelligent but at the same time have a cooperative and willing nature. Their willingness to learn is demonstrated in their success and reliability as working and assistance dogs. They are desperate to please and highly motivated by food, which can act as an aid in the training process. Once trained this breed is generally very attentive to their owner and recall does not tend to be a problem.

As with all puppies house-training is essential and can seem like a long process but on the whole Labradors are quick to learn, especially with an established routine and adequate access to a garden or outdoors space.


The Labrador can be prone to several inherited health problems, which can have an impact on quality of life. However, there are schemes in place to try to reduce their prevalence and improve the health of the breed. When locating a breeder the health of the parents of a litter is an important factor to look out for. The average life expectancy of the Labrador is from around 10 – 12 years.

Testing for the following conditions, which can affect the breed is obligatory for Kennel Club Assured Labrador breeders:

Hip Dysplasia

An abnormal development of the hips which can include several developmental problems and abnormalities commonly leading to joint problems later in life. Experts score X-rays of the hips using specific criterion in dogs older than a year.

The maximum score is 106, a low score correlates with the presence of fewer signs of dysplasia. HD is transmitted genetically but can also be influenced by environment. Dogs are assigned a certificate with the result.

Eye Scheme

The eye scheme includes genetic testing for 12 genetic transmitted eye diseases. Those which are especially relevant to the Labrador are:

  1. Retinal Dysplasia: An abnormal development of the retina in the eye, which eventually leads to one of two forms of the condition in Labradors. Either causing blindness or other eye problems such as cataracts and nystagmus (involuntary eye movement).
  2. Hereditary Cataract: The lens or lens capsule becomes opaque, impairing vision.
  3. Retinal Pigment Epithelial Dystrophy (RPED) – Also known as RPED, this disease which affects the retinal pigment cells. Pigments accumulate within the cells and causes degeneration of the rod and cone cells in the eye. Diagnosis is most reliable after 18 months of age but the disease is unlikely to cause blindness or cataracts. It is of most consequence in working dogs and it thought to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. The most noticeable first sign is a loss of night vision.

The UK Kennel Club also strongly recommends testing for:

Elbow Dysplasia

An abnormal development of the elbows, which eventually leads to osteoarthritis. Elbow dysplasia has a large genetic component. Ideally only dogs with a score of 0 should be bred from.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Progressive Retinal Atrophy refers to various inherited diseases affecting the retina. These fall into either developmental or degenerative categories. Developmental types tend to occur when dogs are young and progress rapidly whereas degenerative types occur when dogs are older and progress more slowly.

Additional areas of concern include the following:

Centronuclear Myopathy

Centronuclear Myopathy, or CNM, is an inherited muscle disease causing weakness, stiffness, reduced exercise tolerance and an increased sensitivity to the cold. This condition is usually evident by around 5 months of age.

Exercise Induced Collapse

Exercise Induced Collage, or EIC, is a genetic disease that causes signs after intense activity. After exercise leg weakness is followed by collapse. Some dogs are more severely affected than others and even mild exercise can cause collapse. The condition usually presents from 5 months to 3 years of age.

Skeletal Dysplasia 2

Skeletal Dysplasia 2, or SD2, causes a shortened stature and is a type of dwarfism in which long bones do not fully develop. This means affected dogs have short legs but their body is usually a normal length.

Hereditary Nasal Parkeratosis

Hereditary Nasal Parkeratosis, or HNPK, is an inherited disease known only to affect the Labrador. It causes a dry nose and subsequent swelling and irritation of the skin. The nose becomes rough and crusty and often lightens in colour. The disease usually develops between 6-12 months of age in affected dogs.


Labradors are prone to obesity. They enjoy their food and if not properly exercised can easily put on weight. Being overweight can cause other health problems such as osteoarthritis and hip dysplasia to exhibit more severe clinical signs and progress faster, as well as precipitating the development of secondary related conditions, such as diabetes.

Appropriate controlled feeding and sufficient exercise and stimulation are key to maintaining a Labrador at a healthy weight. Labradors should have a visible waist and not be allowed to become heavy and fat to combat this propensity to gain weight.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Labradors are a very lively active breed that enjoy the company of other dogs, which are a source of stimulation and encourage exercise. They need plenty of exercise every day to stay healthy and happy and ideally need some exercise off the lead. They should be exercised for a minimum of 1-2 hours a day. Ensuring a Labrador is properly exercised is key to combating weight gain, which the breed is prone to. Labrador Retrievers enjoy swimming and the stimulation that field and other work can provide.


Labrador Retrievers do not require a large amount of grooming, however regular brushing can help to reduce shedding in the house as when they are changing their coat shedding can be heavy. They may need an occasional bath but are not especially prone to any eye or ear problems.

Famous Labrador Retrievers

The Labrador is affable, intelligent and good-natured and this has made them extremely popular as working dogs and in popular culture. Some famous Labrador Retrievers include:

  • Endal, a UK service dog who has won numerous awards including the PDSA’s Gold Medal for Animal Gallantry and Devotion to Duty
  • Dorado, a guide dog who led his owner Omar Riviera down 70 stories before one of the Twin Towers collapsed
  • Jack, a search and rescue dog who helped look for survivors after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina
  • Brian Griffin, from the TV sitcom, Family Guy
  • Krypto, Superman’s dog
  • Luath from the film, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey
  • Wowser from the film, Rascal
  • Marley in the film and book, Marley and Me
  • Randolph from the film, A Dog About Town
  • Vincent from the TV series, Lost
  • Zeus from the film, The Dog Who Saved Christmas


The Labradors popularity, great character and versatility mean it has been crossed with numerous different breeds. Popular crossbreeds today include:

There are also hybrids of hybrids involving the sweet tempered Labrador. The Double Doodle, for example, is a cross between the Labradoodle (a Labrador with a Poodle) and the Goldendoodle (a Golden Retriever with a Poodle).

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