The Labrador breed dates back to at least the 1830s when St. Johns Water Dogs bred by European settlers in Newfoundland were first introduced to Britain from ships trading between Canada and Poole in Dorsetshire.
These were then bred with British hunting dogs to create what became known as the Labrador Retriever.
Its early patrons included the Earl of Malmesbury, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Home, and Sir John Scott. Early writers have confused the Labrador with the much larger Newfoundland and the Lesser Newfoundland, with Charles St. John even referring to the Lesser Newfoundland as the Newfoundland.
Colonel Peter Hawker describes the first Labrador as being not larger than an English Pointer, more often black than other colors, long in its head and nose with a deep chest, fine legs, and short and smooth coat, and did not carry its tail as highly as the Newfoundland.
Hawker distinguishes the Newfoundland from both the "proper Labrador" and St. John's breed of these dogs in the fifth edition of his book Introductions to Young Sportsman, published in 1846.
The first photograph of the breed was taken in 1856 (the Earl of Home's dog "Nell", described both as a Labrador and a St. John's water dog). By 1870, the name Labrador Retriever became common in England.
The first yellow Labrador on record was born in 1899 (Ben of Hyde, kennels of Major C.J. Radclyffe), and the breed was recognized by the Kennel Club in 1903. The first American Kennel Club (AKC) registration was in 1917. The Liver (now typically called Chocolate) Labrador emerged in the late 1800s, with liver-colored pups documented at the Buccleuch kennels in 1892.
The first dog to appear on the cover of Life magazine was a black Labrador Retriever called "Blind of Arden" in the 12 December 1938 issue.
Labrador Retrievers: Hunting Dog
When hunting waterfowl, a retriever's primary job is to retrieve downed birds. At times, a dog will not see the game fall, so retrievers are trained to take hand, voice, and whistle commands from the handler directing the dog to the downed game for retrieval. This is called a “blind retrieve”.
To carry out the duties of a gun dog, a retriever should be trained to perform these tasks:
- Remain under control: Retrievers are typically used for waterfowl hunting. Since a majority of waterfowl hunting employs the use of small boats in winter conditions, retrievers are trained to remain under control sitting calmly and quietly until sent to retrieve.
This is often referred to as "steadiness". Steadiness helps to avoid accidental capsizing, disrupting the hunter's aim, or the possible accidental discharge of a firearm which could cause serious harm or death to others in the hunting party or to the dog itself. A steady dog is also better able to “mark” downed game.
- Mark downed game: Marking is the process of watching for a falling bird or multiple birds. When the command "mark" is given, the dog should lookup for incoming birds and remember where each bird falls.
Well-trained retrievers are taught to follow the direction the gun barrel is pointing to mark where the birds fall. Once the game is downed, the handler will command the dog to retrieve the game.
The dog's ability to remember multiple “marks” is extremely important, and trainers use techniques to improve a dog's marking and memory ability.
- Perform a blind retrieve: When hunting waterfowl, a retriever's primary job is to retrieve downed birds. At times, a dog will not see the game fall, so retrievers are trained to take hand, voice, and whistle commands from the handler directing the dog to the downed game for retrieval. This is called a “blind retrieve”. Precision between the dog and handler is extremely useful and desired to minimize retrieval time and limit the disturbance of surrounding cover.
The majority of blind retrieves in the field are made within 30-80 yards of the gun, but a good retriever/handler team can perform precise blind retrieves out to 100+ yards and more.
- Retrieve to hand: Although some hunters prefer to have a bird dropped at their feet, the majority of handlers require the dog to deliver the game to hand, meaning once the dog has completed the retrieve, it will gently but firmly hold the bird until commanded to release it to the handler's hand. Delivery to hand reduces the risk of a crippled bird escaping, as the bird remains in the dog's mouth until the handler takes hold of it.
- Honoring: When hunting with multiple dogs, a retriever should remain under control while other dogs work, and wait its turn.
This is important because having multiple dogs retrieving games simultaneously can confuse. This is one reason why many handlers use the dog's name as the command to retrieve.
- Shake on command: Following a retrieve, a well-trained dog will not shake off excess water from its fur until after the delivery is complete. A dog shaking water from its fur in a small boat at worst risks capsizing the craft in cold winter conditions and at best will most likely shower hunters and equipment. Also, a dog shaking while still holding the game in its mouth could damage the bird to the point of making it unfit for the table. To avoid these mishaps, trainers use a distinct command releasing a dog to shake.
- Quarter: Retrievers are often used in a secondary role as an upland flushing dog. Dogs must work in a pattern in front of the hunter seeking upland game birds. The retriever must be taught to stay within gun range to avoid flushing a bird outside of shooting distance.
- Remain steady to wing and shot: When hunting upland birds, the flushing dog should be steady to wing and shot, meaning it sits when a bird rises or a gun is fired. It does this to mark the fall and to avoid flushing other birds by unnecessarily pursuing a missed bird.
Although most individual retrievers have the raw capacity to be trained to perform as a gun dog, a significant amount of thought and effort is given to breeding specific desired traits into dogs from field bred lines that greatly enhance the training process. When breeding retrievers for fieldwork, extensive consideration is given to:
- Biddableness: Because producing a well-trained retriever capable of performing the tasks outlined above requires a significant amount of time and effort, an intelligent, controllable, and open-to-learning (biddable) retriever is of utmost importance.
- Desire and drive: These traits cover a broad range of behaviors exhibited by the “good retriever”. Most notably, they demonstrate the desire to retrieve almost to the point of manic behavior and take on significant obstacles to make a retrieve. They also demonstrate an exceptional interest in birds, bird feathers, and bird scent, which is termed “birdiness”.
- Marking and memory: Eyesight and depth perception are of paramount importance to a dog's ability to mark downed game. Remembering each fall is also critical. While retriever trainers use special techniques to help a dog to mark and remember the downed game, a good retriever is born with these “raw tools”.
- Nose: Dogs are led primarily by their nose. A good retriever uses its nose to find a downed game in heavy cover and while quartering a field to locate and flush upland game birds.
- Soft mouth: A soft-mouthed dog is needed to ensure the retrieved game is fit for the table. A soft-mouthed dog picks up and holds the game softly but firmly on the retrieve. Dogs that unnecessarily drop birds, crunch on, chew, or even eat the bird before delivery to the handler is considered “hard-mouthed” or are described as having “mouth problems”. While training can overcome most “mouth problems”, a dog with an inherently soft mouth is more desirable when starting the training process.
- Hardiness: Waterfowl hunting is a cold-weather sport undertaken across a wide variety of locations and conditions, from thick, flooded timber in the south US, to icy and ice-covered ponds in the Midwest to frigid seas along upper the New England coast. A good retriever willingly re-enters the water and makes multiple retrieves under these and other extreme conditions.
Taking care of a Labrador
- Feed it appropriately. Your labrador retriever has a huge appetite. It loves to eat, so it may carry its food bowl around with them, beg for food, or eat unconventional things. This is normal. The exact quantity of food you give your lab depends on which food you're offering and how many calories it contains. Follow the feeding guidelines on the food packaging, and increase or decrease the amount depending on whether the dog loses or gains weight on this ratio.
If your dog is more active than most dogs, then you should increase its food intake accordingly. For instance, if every morning you and your furry friend go for a 5-mile jog together, you should consider giving it more food than usual.
Obviously, you don’t want your labrador to become obese. If you cannot easily feel its rib bones anymore, then you are probably overfeeding it. At the same time, you should not be able to see its rib bones from afar.
- Provide plenty of clean, freshwater. Your lab will get very thirsty after exercise and will need to quench that thirst. It will drink more or less water depending on how active it has been and how hot it is outside. Do not limit your dog's water consumption. Unlike food, your dog will regulate itself. Dehydration can be fatal, so don't take any chances.
- Walk your dog. Your lab needs a lot of exercises to stay healthy. Walk your lab up to three times a day and if you can, take it on long walks of a couple miles or more. If you have a backyard, make sure that it is big enough for your dog to run around. Small backyards are not suitable for big dogs like labs.
- Provide comfortable shelter. Whether your lab lives outside or inside, make sure that it has a space it can call it's own. Include a large, durable dog bed. Your lab will paw at the bed constantly to get comfortable. Cheap beds will rip easily and can cause quite a mess.
Giving your labrador its own bed will also help you train it to stay off of yours if you are so inclined.
- Groom your dog regularly. Labradors are a short-haired breed that comes in brown, black, and gold. For most of the year, your lab will remain fairly low maintenance. During the summer, you’ll want to brush it regularly — weekly is best — to remove loose hair from its coat. Brushing your lab will also help remove dirt and spread natural oils throughout.
- Don’t bathe your lab too often. The natural oils in your lab's fur can even help fend off fleas and ticks. Bathe your lab 3 or 4 times a year or whenever its stench gets too strong.
- Trim your lab's nails. Every 2 to 3 months, you should trim your labrador’s nails. If you take your dog on frequent walks, the hard pavement will naturally file its nails down. You can trim them at home or have a vet do it. In general, you can train your lab to sit still to have its nails trimmed. Just offer it a treat after every successful trip to your at-home doggie nail salon. Eventually, your dog will welcome it.
Be sure to use proper dog nail trimmers. Human nail clippers won't work effectively. Secure your dog's foot in place and then quickly clip off the nail. Do not clip too close to the base of the nail. Doing so can be very painful and cause bleeding. Make sure that the nail does not curve back into the dog's paw or is too sharp to cause accidental damage.
- Clean your labrador retriever's floppy ears. Your Labrador's ears can become breeding grounds for bacteria if not cleaned regularly and properly. Check the dog's ears regularly for any excessive or smelly discharge, and seek veterinary advice if you notice anything amiss. If you want to clean the ears, use a specific product designed for the purpose.
Do not use a Q-Tip to clean inside your dog’s ear. One sudden jerk could seriously damage your dog’s ear canal.
- Care for your lab's teeth. The more active your lab is the more likely it'll have dental issues. Gum disease, loose teeth, cracked/fractured/broken teeth, root abscesses, and tartar build-up are all problems you’ll need to be on the lookout for. Take your dog to the vet for teeth cleaning 1 or 2 times a year. Routine trips to your vet can also help combat terrible breath. Since you are on the receiving end of so many slobbery kisses, this issue has probably crossed your mind and therefore is just one more reason why you should have your lab's teeth cleaned.
Vets suggest that you brush your dog's teeth daily or at least several times a week. Purchase a specialty toothbrush and toothpaste from your local pet shop/superstore or your veterinarian. Several kinds of toothpaste are available, many of which come in tasty flavors - e.g. liver, chicken, and peanut butter - that your dog will enjoy.
Introduce the brush into your dog's mouth gently. Use your fingers to lift your dog's lips to expose their teeth. Work the brush in circles and go from tooth to tooth. Its back teeth will be the most difficult to get to, so save them for last. Make sure that you brush both sides of each tooth. Reward your dog with a treat afterward.
- Provide routine veterinary care. Every dog needs certain core vaccinations regularly. It is a good idea to take your dog to the vet at least twice a year for routine exams to monitor its health and to establish a good relationship with your veterinary staff. If your pet should get hurt or is not acting normally, it is always a good idea to visit the veterinarian for an exam and medical care if needed. Your vet will also prescribe necessary medicines (topical and supplemental) to help ward off parasites like fleas and ticks.
As your dog ages, you may see such health issues as hip dysplasia, epilepsy, or seizures. Your labrador retriever may also experience eye problems. If any of these are happening to your dog, immediately contact your vet and talk about possible treatment solutions or medications. An elderly dog with any such conditions should see a vet every two months or as advised by your vet.