The warm and intelligent Lab is America's number one breed registered with the American Kennel Club. Even non-dog people can recognize a Lab, and artists and photographers have captured his image countless times — usually as the loyal companion, waiting patiently by his owner's side.
Built for sport, the Lab is muscular and athletic. He has a short, easy-care coat, friendly demeanor, keen intelligence, and plenty of energy. Devotion to this breed runs deep; Labs are loving, people-oriented dogs who live to serve their families, and owners and fans sometimes liken their Labs to angels.
The breed originated on the island of Newfoundland, off the northeastern Atlantic coast of Canada. Originally called the St. John's dog, after the capital city of Newfoundland, he was bred to help the local fishermen — hauling nets, fetching ropes, and retrieving fish that had escaped the nets — as well as to be a family dog.
Today, most Labs skip the hard labor and spend their days being pampered and loved by their people. However, some Labs still serve as indispensable working dogs.
The Lab's sweet nature makes him an excellent therapy dog, visiting homes for the elderly and hospitals, and his intelligence makes him an ideal assistance dog for the handicapped. He also excels as a search and rescue dog or as a retriever for hunters, thanks to his athletic build, strong nose, and courageous nature. And Labs have also become the breed to beat at dog sports such as agility and obedience competitions — especially obedience.
There's one dog job that Labs are hopeless at: watchdog. In fact, owners say their sweet, helpful Lab is likely to greet an intruder and happily show him where the goods are stashed.
Labrador Retrievers have proven their usefulness and versatility throughout the breed's history, easily shifting from fisherman's companion, to field retriever, to show dog, to modern working dog. One role has remained constant: wonderful companion and friend.
- Labrador Retrievers love, love, love to eat, and become obese very quickly if overfed. Limit treats, give your Lab plenty of exercise, and measure out regular meals rather than leaving food out all the time. And be warned that the Lab's large appetite extends to people food and even inedible items. Labradors will forage in garbage, counter surf, and can make a meal out of chewed-up items like children's toys.
- Labrador Retrievers were bred for physically demanding jobs, and they have the high energy that goes along with being a working breed. They need at least 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. Without it, they can vent their pent-up energy in destructive ways, such as barking and chewing.
- Labs have such a good reputation that many people think they don't need to bother with training. But Labs are large, energetic animals, and like all dogs, they need to be taught good canine manners. Sign up for puppy and obedience classes as soon as you bring your Lab home.
- Many people think of Labs as a hyperactive breed. Lab puppies are definitely lively, but most will slow down a bit as they grow up. However, they usually remain fairly active throughout their lives.
- Labrador Retrievers are not known to be escape artists, but with the right motivation — such as a whiff of something yummy — a Lab will take off. Make sure your Lab has current identification tags and a microchip.
- The Lab is America's number one dog, which means there are plenty of people breeding Labs who are more interested in filling the demand for Lab puppies than in breeding healthy dogs with good temperaments. To get a healthy dog, never buy a puppy from an irresponsible breeder, puppy mill, or pet store. Look for a reputable breeder who tests her breeding dogs to make sure they're free of genetic diseases that they might pass onto the puppies, and that they have sound temperaments.
- If you're looking for a puppy, you'll find that Labs vary depending on what breeder you choose. Some Labs are bred for competitions testing their skill as working dogs, and others are bred to get as close as possible to the ideal look, movement, and temperament of the breed. You'll also find breeders who aim for both looks and utility. Labs bred for the show ring tend to be slightly heavier and more solidly built than those intended for canine careers.
Labrador Retrievers are generally healthy, but like all breeds, they're prone to certain health conditions. Not all Labs will get any or all of these diseases, but it's important to be aware of them if you're considering this breed.
Hip Dysplasia: Hip dyplasia is a heritable condition in which the thighbone doesn't fit snugly into the hip joint. Some dogs show pain and lameness on one or both rear legs, but you may not notice any signs of discomfort in a dog with hip dysplasia. As the dog ages, arthritis can develop. X-ray screening for hip dysplasia is done by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program. Dogs with hip dysplasia should not be bred. If you're buying a puppy, ask the breeder for proof that the parents have been tested for hip dysplasia and are free of problems.
Elbow Dysplasia: This is a heritable condition common to large-breed dogs. It's thought to be caused by different growth rates of the three bones that make up the dog's elbow, causing joint laxity. This can lead to painful lameness. Your vet may recommend surgery to correct the problem or medication to control the pain.
Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD): This orthopedic condition, caused by improper growth of cartilage in the joints, usually occurs in the elbows, but it has been seen in the shoulders as well. It causes a painful stiffening of the joint, to the point that the dog is unable to bend his elbow. It can be detected in dogs as early as four to nine months of age. Overfeeding of "growth formula" puppy foods or high-protein foods may contribute to its development.
Cataracts: As in humans, canine cataracts are characterized by cloudy spots on the eye lens that can grow over time. They may develop at any age, and often don't impair vision, although some cases cause severe vision loss. Breeding dogs should be examined by a board-certified veterinary ophthamologist to be certified as free of hereditary eye disease before they're bred. Cataracts can usually be surgically removed with good results.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): PRA is a family of eye diseases that involves the gradual deterioration of the retina. Early in the disease, dogs become night-blind. As the disease progresses, they lose their daytime vision, as well. Many dogs adapt to limited or complete vision loss very well, as long as their surroundings remain the same.
Epilepsy: Labs can suffer from epilepsy, which causes mild or severe seizures. Seizures may be exhibited by unusual behavior, such as running frantically as if being chased, staggering, or hiding. Seizures are frightening to watch, but the long-term prognosis for dogs with idiopathic epilepsy is generally very good. It's important to remember that seizures can be caused by many other things than idiopathic epilepsy, such as metabolic disorders, infectious diseases that affect the brain, tumors, exposure to poisons, severe head injuries, and more. Therefore, if your Lab has seizures, it's important to take him to the vet right away for a checkup.
Tricuspid Valve Dysplasia (TVD): TVD is a congenital heart defect that has been increasing in prevalence in the Labrador breed. Puppies are born with TVD, which is a malformation of the tricuspid valve on the right side of the heart. It can be mild or severe; some dogs live with no symptoms, others die. TVD is detected by ultrasound. Research is ongoing to learn how widespread it is in the breed, as well as treatment.
Myopathy: Myopathy affects the muscles and nervous system. The first signs are seen early, as young as six weeks and often by seven months of age. A puppy with myopathy is tired, stiff when he walks and trots. He may collapse after exercise. In time, the muscles atrophy and the dog can barely stand or walk. There is no treatment, but rest and keeping the dog warm seems to reduce symptoms. Dogs with myopathy should not be bred because it is considered a heritable disease.
Gastric Dilataion-Volvulus: Commonly called bloat, this is a life-threatening condition that affects large, deep-chested dogs like Labs, especially if they're fed one large meal a day, eat rapidly, or drink large amounts of water or exercise vigorously after eating. Bloat occurs when the stomach is distended with gas or air and then twists. The dog is unable to belch or vomit to rid himself of the excess air in his stomach, and blood flow to the heart is impeded. Blood pressure drops and the dog goes into shock. Without immediate medical attention, the dog can die. Suspect bloat if your dog has a distended abdomen, is drooling excessively, and retching without throwing up. He also may be restless, depressed, lethargic, and weak with a rapid heart rate. If you notice these symptoms, get your dog to the vet as soon as possible.
Acute Moist Dermatitis: Acute moist dermatitis is a skin condition in which the skin red and inflamed. It is caused by a bacterial infection. The more common name of this health concern is hot spots. Treatment includes clipping the hair, bathing in medicated shampoo, and antibiotics.
Cold Tail: Cold tail is a benign, though painful condition common to Labs and other retrievers. Also caused limber tail, it caused the dog's tail to go limp. The dog may bite at the tail. It isn't cause for alarm, and usually goes away on its own in a few days. It is thought to be a problem with the muscles between the vertebrae in the tail.
Ear Infections: The Lab's love of water, combined with his drop ear make him prone to ear infections. Weekly checking and cleaning if necessary helps prevent infection.
If you're buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy's parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition.