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Purchasing a Labrador

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Canine Legislature

Pamela A. Davol, 76 Mildred Avenue, Swansea, MA  02777-1620.



In 1822 a traveler to Newfoundland gave an account of a number of small water dogs preferred for retrieving by waterfowlers because their smooth, short coats did not retain icy water in the freezing weather. The Earl of Malmesbury upon seeing the swift black retrieving dogs took a liking to them and arranged to have some imported to England. It wasn't until 1887 that the name "Labrador" was coined when the Earl incorrectly referred to them in a letter as his "Labrador dog." It was in the same letter that he also mentions the physical attributes which still distinguish the breed today... "its close coat which turns the water off like oil and above all, a tail like an otter."

Dog taxes eventually caused the Labrador Retriever to lose popularity in Newfoundland, and the quarantine laws of England prohibited anymore to be imported. The British, however, recognized its attributes as a quality retriever and began interbreeding with the other types of retrievers. The Labrador traits remained predominant, however, and eventually true fanciers of the breed set up a standard to establish the breed and discourage further interbreeding.  In 1903 the English Kennel Club recognized the Labrador Retriever as a separate breed. In the United States the American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1917, but it wasn't until the late 1920s and 1930s that the breed seemed to gain its popularity here.


The standard is the official description of the ideal specimen of the breed. Usually, the standard is drawn up by the parent club, in this case the Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. It is then approved by the American Kennel Club and comes to serve as a guide to breeders and to judges in evaluating individual dogs of that breed. The Official Standard for the Labrador Retriever as set forth by the American Kennel Club was originally adapted from the English standard.

Nearly a decade ago there was some dissension among parent club members in which the standard was regarded as being too general and, therefore, responsible for the increasing disparity between bench Labradors and field Labradors. This meant that the Labrador was eventually destined to exist as two separate breeds (as is true of the Cocker Spaniel, Irish Setter, Springer Spaniel, etc.), one for field and one for show. It was the proposal of the members of the parent club (who are primarily field enthusiasts) that the standard be rewritten.

In November of 1992, a new standard was proposed and again voted on. This time the proposal was accepted by a majority of members and was subsequently approved by the A.K.C.. As before, the new standard remains at the center of much controversy and dissension among enthusiasts of the breed. Though intending to unify the breed, many of us who originally supported its acceptance now fear that it has provoked animosity within the sport and, as a result, may actually be increasing the breach.  It may be said, however, that a change of standard may not improve the situation as long as there are breeders who breed Labradors solely for their appearance or solely for their speed and endurance.


This brings us to the issue of "type."  If one were to look at examples from two different breeds of dog, one could distinguish quite easily between a Labrador Retriever and a Cocker Spaniel. There are very obvious differences between the two which make them recognizable as distinct breeds from one another. However, if all the dogs in the world were Labrador Retrievers, one would have to look for more subtle differences such as head-shape, coat texture, tail set, etc. to distinguish between two dogs. This is how a Labrador fancier looks at Labradors. He does not look at the obvious differences, he can see the subtle ones.

Over the years, Labradors have been categorized in various ways usually pertaining to their appearance or type. For instance, field Labs vs. water Labs, American vs. English, and more recently field vs. show. In each case the former represents the individuals longer in body, neck and tail, and taller and lighter-boned; the latter represents those individuals which are more compact, stocky, and heavy-boned. Although many people use the term English to refer to show and American to refer to field, there are actually American show bloodlines as well as English field bloodlines.  Furthermore, there are actually more types than just American and English.

Typically, the English type describes those dogs which are very short-coupled, stocky, heavy-boned, and have broad heads with shorter, more square muzzles. Tails are usually very fat (as thick as a forearm). Size is at the lower end of the American standard height, but the males can weigh about 85 pounds; females about 65 to 70 pounds. In regard to temperament, English Labs tend to be more laid-back and sedate, reaching emotional maturity much more quickly than Labs of other descent. In general, because of their build, English Labs do run a higher risk for hip-joint subluxation which leads to shallow acetabulums and mild forms of hip dysplasia. Many of these dogs are built very wide in the rear and their muscle tone does not develop at a sufficient pace with their bone development. Furthermore, they do have a tendency toward obesity which may further make them candidates for HD. However, most of these dogs remain clinically asymptomatic for hip dysplasia and it is not a degenerative form seen more typically in the American and Field lines. Additionally, epilepsy is probably more preponderant in the English lines. Because hereditary epilepsy in these dogs is usually mild, with seizures occurring infrequently and not requiring medication, some English breeders have never felt this form of epilepsy to be a reason to exclude dogs from their breeding programs.

Similar to the English type is another type which is referred to as the New England Water Lab. These Labs are very short and compact dogs often described as "beer barrels with short legs". The NE water Lab is an off-shoot of English lines, but with lighter bone and less exageration of head and features.  These dogs were selected through many generations for their size because many waterfowl hunters in the New England area needed a small, compact retriever that they could drag in and out of the boats easily. Therefore,  a shorter leg and topline resulting in a very small, compact type of Lab gave rise to the New England Water Lab "type". Many of these dogs fall below the American standard for height. In regard to temperament, these dogs are great family dogs but are slightly more energenic than the English lines.

The American-show (bench) type is more of an overall moderate version of Lab, free of exaggerated features, and therefore, typical to the written standard of the breed. Though many have nicely shaped heads and expressions, they are not as over-done as the English dogs. They are mid-sized, neither small nor large, but average. They are active as puppies and tend to be moderately active adults.

The American Field Lab was bred and selected for speed and endurance in the field and is an opposite version of the NE water Lab: where the NE Lab is short-legged and compact for swimming, field labs are designed for speed and endurance in the field and are long in leg and lanky in body. This Lab "type" has been selected for in the central and mid-west part of the U.S. where field trials are more popular.  Because of the working demands placed on these dogs, high-energy and "drive" are qualities required in field Labs. In terms of temperament, though some are head-strong and require an experienced hand for training, these dogs are extremely intelligent and develop strong bonds with their human companions.   Unfortunately, however, the average pet owner may not have the experience or tolerance required to achieve such a companionable relationship with these dogs.

Be aware that these are just generalizations and type and temperament are more dependent on the breeding cross and therefore, unique to the individual dog. Additionally, many of the Labs today have a mixture of English and American show and or field bloodlines, therefore, some Labs that may have English bloodlines may look more American and vise versa depending on the actual breeding and the outcome of the cross.   Therefore, the particular "type" we use to refer to the Lab may have nothing to do with the actual ancestry of the dog, but rather the overall appearance of the dog.

When purchasing a puppy it is important to know one's preference in type so that one may consult a breeder who may specialize in that type. For example, if one desires a show puppy or show-type, one shouldn't go to a field breeder and vise versa. This does not mean, however, that show breeders cannot produce field trial prospects or that field breeders cannot produce show prospects. Some breeders are very interested in transcending the gap between show and field by breeding individuals from show stock to individuals from field stock. Through research, planning and selection, a breeding program such as this allows one to choose desirable traits from both lines while breeding out undesirable ones.

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'Copyright 2000, 1992 Pamela A. Davol'