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Labrador Retrievers, from a trainer’s perspective

Whenever anyone makes generalizations about a breed, there are always examples to the contrary. The truth is there is a lot of diversity within each breed. Even littermates can vary greatly. Keeping that in mind, here’s my quick and dirty “breed review” for the most popular breed in the United States, the Labrador Retriever.

I love Labradors. One of the first dogs I grew up with as a child was a mix who was mostly Labrador (I even trained him to track turtles). I enjoy working with them as a trainer because they are usually quick to pick up new skills. There is a reason so many guide, working dog and service dog programs use Labradors, it is because they are often easy to train complex behaviors and they are also usually very friendly to boot. Most of the Labradors I have met have been very tolerant, happy and confident dogs that can adapt to a wide range of living situations.

Labradors have been popular for a long time, and there are a lot to choose from. When choosing a Labrador it is important for pet owners to be aware that in this breed (as with many) there is a significant difference between Labradors bred for “working” purposes (hunting dogs) and those bred for show. The working Labrador (often referred to as “field type”) tends to be taller and leaner. The show type is stockier. Some breeders will cross the two (“dual lines”). The behavior and energy level of these two types varies as well. While there are exceptions, in most cases, the working type dog is too energetic for most suburban and urban pet owners. You cannot be the kind of person who jogs once or twice a week with a really energetic field bred Labrador. You have to be able to meet the dog’s exercise needs every single day even in the snow, sleet and rain. The show line dogs usually are lower key and usually are a better match for most pet homes. The dual line bred dogs usually fall somewhere inbetween both types in terms of energy level.

Of course, every breeder’s lines and individual dogs vary, so it is important for a prospective pet owner to examine the individual dog and line as well.  Pet owners often overestimate the amount of walking and exercise they are realistically able to provide the dog.  Remember, breeders may not necessarily guide you in the right direction so do your research and do not take a breeders’ word for it that his/her dogs are easy to live with in suburban/urban settings. Of course, if you are getting the dog from a breeder make sure that he/she is responsible and has done the recommended health screenings as well. If you are choosing the dog from rescue/shelter, take time to learn about the shelter/rescue group.

I also often see people drawn to Labradors because they assume that the dog will be the quintessential, easy family pet. Sorry folk, there is no “low maintenance” dog breed. While Labrador Retrievers can make wonderful pets, this requires time and effort on the owner’s part. Those working dogs that everyone admires have often had over a year of initial training and are continuously practicing and having brush up training sessions throughout their lives in order to maintain skills.

As young puppies most Labradors are very mouthy, as adolescents they can be “bulls in a china shop” with their bodies. Their powerful movements can knock down children and adults. I have received several calls for training help because the owner was seriously injured (broken limbs, fractures, muscle/tendon injuries) by his/her over-exuberant Labrador’s behavior causing a fall. Now of course, proper training from the start can prevent these types of situations. However, like with human teenagers, even if parents do all the right things, Labrador teenagers will have their moments. If your family includes frail people or small children, consider carefully how you will safely manage exuberant behavior before bringing in an energetic large breed dog (whether Labrador or other) into your home. Remember young puppies grow quickly!

Last but not least, any breed of dog can develop aggressive behavior and yes, I have worked with Labradors with aggressive behavior towards people and dogs.  Appropriate socialization and training from the start is important for all dogs-including Labradors!

So if this is the breed you are thinking about, do your homework, consider talking to a trainer or two (many trainers, like myself, offer pre-puppy purchase consults) to discuss the pros and cons. If you have children (or will be having children within the dog’s lifespan), you need to be even more thoughtful about the dog you are choosing. Happy researching!

1 Comment

  1. Paulette O Paulette O
    November 20, 2010    

    Also sometimes people think that because Labs are short hair that they don’t shed much; I’ve heard that yellow labs shed more than blacks…don’t know if that’s true.

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