"A moment later the stevedore appeared on deck leading by a leash one of the most handsome dogs ever seen in Maryland. He was jet-black, sturdy in his front quarters, sleek and powerful in his hind, with a face so intelligent that it seemed he might speak at any moment. His movements were quick, his dark eyes following every development nearby, yet his disposition appeared so equable he seemed always about to smile.
"'He's called a Labrador,' Lightfoot said. 'Finest huntin' dog ever developed'"
So wrote James Michener in his novel Chesapeake about the arrival of a new breed of dog to the Maryland marshes to challenge the reign of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever as a consummate hunter. The Labrador Retriever has lived up to his billing - he has been the most popular dog in the US for more than 15 years. More than 137 thousand Labrador Retrievers were registered with the American Kennel Club in 2005, putting the Lab far ahead of second place Golden Retrievers in individual registrations.
The Lab actually developed in Newfoundland, from whence he made his way to England, probably with fishermen who worked the rich fisheries off the coast of the eastern Canadian provinces. There, in order to avoid confusion with the larger, heavy-coated Newfoundland dog, he was called the Labrador. The original Labrador Retriever was a versatile working dog, able to rescue drifting nets, bring back shot waterfowl, and haul the catch to market in jog carts. Once in England, however, his marvelous nose brought him fame as a hunting dog, a job he relishes today.
But the Labrador Retriever is far more. In this one breed are combined a smattering of all the attributes needed in a family dog for an active household. He is kind to children, friendly to most people and other animals, energetic, easy-to-train, anxious to please, fun to teach tricks and games, and an easy-keeper. He'll play fetch for hours or lie quietly on the family room floor, content to serve as a pillow for a toddler. Well-bred Labs have a stable temperament suitable for work as a guide dog for the blind, an assistance dog for a handicapped person, or a sniffer dog for contraband at airports and border checkpoints. And he is a fine dog for those interested in competition events such as obedience, agility, rally, or hunting tests or trials.
The Labrador Retriever is a large, powerful-looking dog with a blocky head, drop ears, a sleek, short coat, and a strong otter-like tail that can clear a coffee table in the blink of an eye. Weighing in at 60-80 pounds and standing 22.5-24.5 inches at the shoulder with a thick neck and strong quarters, he is a working dog in need of exercise to stay in shape.
Large nostrils, deep chest, and well-sprung ribs give testimony to his stamina, and his wide jaws and muzzle give him the ability to retrieve even big waterfowl such as the larger races of Canada geese. This is a stocky dog with moderately long legs; he should not be lanky or stubby and should be well-balanced with an appearance of endurance.
The short Lab coat is very dense and repels water, thus protecting the dog from chill as he goes about his work. The coat sheds rather more than one might expect, especially around the haunches. The coat comes in jet black, pale to deep chocolate, and yellow, which can actually range from cream to russet.
Although the Lab is the epitome of family dogs, he needs a fairly active household to satisfy his need for exercise and work. Daily walks, romps in a fenced yard, and games of fetch keep his mind and body in shape. Unless these needs are satisfied, the Lab may become a wanderer, a digger, or a chewer. First off, the new Lab puppy should be leash trained and taught to sit on command to prevent his jumping on people in his desire to say hello. The pup can also be taught early to shake paws and to fetch; his soft mouth and innate desire to retrieve can provide hours of play. Later on, the pup can learn to put his nose to use and find things that have been hidden for him.
A fast-growing Lab pup reaches almost adult weight within six or seven months and can be a handful to train if left to his own devices 'til then. He is exuberant, a trait that can get him into trouble with other dogs and with the neighbors who do not appreciate his antics. Therefore early training is essential; if you wait too long, his rambunctious character and strong body will be difficult to manage, especially for those who have not previously had the pleasure of owning such a dog. To avoid training problems and grease the skids of your relationship, take your Lab pup to puppy and basic obedience classes to teach manners, and keep up this good citizen training for the life of the dog. (AKC offers a Canine Good Citizen certificate for those dogs that can pass a 10-step test. Information is available at http://www.akc.org/events/cgc/program.cfm.)
All members of the family should participate in the training at home. If Mary or Dad allows the dog on the sofa when Mom's not around, the dog is going to be either confused or sneaky, so consistency between family members is necessary.
Discipline should be gentle - no screaming at the pup or smacking with a newspaper, as these reactions to misbehavior are counterproductive. Labs are generally eager to learn, so firm but gentle guidance and discipline pay off in a strong bond with family members.
Feeding a Lab pup is more difficult than buying a premium food and letting him eat his fill. As a fast-growing breed subject to hip dysplasia, the Lab puppy should be fed a diet prepared for large-breed puppies or regular adult dog food of less than 25 percent protein to help avoid joint problems that can occur when puppies grow too fast. Offer him food two or three times a day and take away what he doesn't eat in 10 minutes. Teach him to sit before putting the food bowl on the floor to avoid his jumping at the dish and spilling the food.
Some Labs are taller or heavier than the preferred standard size. Most Labs have a tendency to become obese, so their diets must be closely controlled. Owners who use treats to train must be careful to cut back on regular meals to avoid unhealthy weight gain. Older Labs enjoy the couch and the fire; if fed too much or not given enough exercise they will fatten up rather quickly.
Labs are prone to hip dysplasia, a malformation of the hip joint that ranges from mild to severe and can cause such disability or pain that major surgery is necessary.
Dysplastic dogs usually become arthritic. With so many Lab puppies produced each year, it is important to buy from a breeder who x-rays breeding stock for hip dysplasia and only uses those animals with an OFA or PennHIP clearance for breeding. Screening tests on breeding dogs cannot prevent the development of disease in offspring, but it lessens the odds that hip dysplasia will be a problem.
Labs are also prone to several eye disorders, including progressive retinal atrophy and cataracts, and epilepsy. All Lab breeding stock should have an eye test each year and be registered free of eye disease by the Canine Eye Registry Foundation.
Purchasing a healthy Lab pup can be a bit difficult, but the research to find just the right breeder and puppy is well worth the trouble. The well-bred Labrador Retriever is one of a handful of wonderful family dogs for a broad spectrum of lifestyles and living situations. A Lab can do field work (for real or in trials and tests), obedience and agility competition, or therapy dog work at local hospitals or nursing homes with owners who are looking for just a bit more than a companion dog. All in all, the well-bred Lab can be the perfect family dog.
Because it is a popular breed, the Lab has many clubs of enthusiasts throughout the US. Contact information is available on the AKC website at http://www.akc.org/clubs/search/index.cfm?action=conf&display=on; simply follow the directions for locating a specialty breed club.
Breed popularity as family dogs is also the downfall of many individual Labs that are poorly-bred by amateur breeders or by those who are blinded by the bottom line and purchased by families not prepared to deal with a big, fast-growing, strong, exuberant puppy. In order to rescue, rehabilitate, and recycle these dogs into new homes, Labrador clubs and fanciers have established rescue organizations throughout the country. Those who are looking for a Lab but don't want to cope with housetraining and teaching basic good manners might contact one of these groups through the AKC at http://www.akc.org/breeds/rescue.cfm.
Those who would like to go directly to the Labrador Retriever Club of America can find lots of Lab information at http://www.thelabradorclub.com/.
[More on finding a dog]
Norma Bennett Woolf
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