America’s Best Friend: The Labrador Retriever

Every winter AKC employees look forward to the annual media event held in our New York office to announce the top-10 registered breeds of the previous year. There are TV cameras and reporters and photographers and dogs and puppies swirling around our usually staid wood-paneled reception area. The day is filled with glamour, excitement, tumult, everything you’d want at such an event—except suspense. That’s because year in and year out, going back to 1991, the AKC spokesperson steps up to the mike to announce that the Labrador Retriever is again America’s most registered dog.

And here’s a scoop: The Lab will be top dog next year—and probably the year after that, and on into the foreseeable future. In a 2012 article for AKC Family Dog magazine, Mara Bovsun wrote about America’s love affair with Labs:

“Visit any dog park, and you’re likely to spot several engaged in wild games of fetch. Turn on the TV, yellow Labbie puppies are scampering across the screen with rolls of toilet paper. Go into any bookstore, you’ll see the mischievous face of Marley, ‘the world’s worst dog,’ peering out at you in one of John Grogan’s many spinoffs of his international best seller. There’s a magazine devoted entirely to the breed, aptly named Just Labs.”

Yes, Labs are a fixture on the American landscape, as familiar as a Ford pickup in the Denny’s parking lot. So, it might come as a surprise to learn that less than a hundred years ago, few Americans had even heard of the breed.

“The Dog Dasheth Into the Sea”

Newfoundland, a rugged, icy island off the coast of northeast Canada, was 

the birthplace for two breeds of sturdy water dog—one a heavy-coated giant, rumored to be the offspring of a wolf and a bear, and the other a sleek, medium-sized athlete. This smaller dog became known as the St. John’s Dog, the forerunner of today’s Labrador Retriever.

Labrador Retriever best in show 1968

The late gundog expert Richard A. Wolters postulated that European dogs, known as the Saint Huberts hound, came on ships when British seaman arrived on this isolated outpost on the North Sea sometime in the 16th century. Earliest accounts of Newfoundland’s working dogs were found in the diary kept in the 1790s by a sailor named Aaron Thomas:

“The Fishermen, when they hooked a Fish, in drawing the line up [find] the Fish sometimes disentangled themselves. The Fish may sometimes float on the Water. The dog, observing this, dasheth into the Sea and brings the Fish alongside. They then throw a Rope out and the Dog, with the Fish in his mouth, puts Head into the Noose of the Rope and Fish and Dog are hauled into the Vessel together. At Sea those Dogs often pursue and kill Water Fowl. I have heard of a Dog who was absent from a Ship on the Grand Bank for Two days, and on the Third he return’d with a Hegdown [a large seabird] in his mouth. These Dogs have also been seen to dive after Porpoises but without success.”

By the early19th century, St. John’s Dogs had made their way back to Europe. The first use of the name Labrador appears in the 1814 “Instructions to Young Sportsmen,” by Colonel P. Hawker. He extolled their exceptional gifts as hunters. “Their discrimination of scent, in following a wounded pheasant through a whole covert full of game, or pinioned wild fowl through a furze brake, or warren of rabbits, appears almost impossible.”

Credit for development of the modern Labrador Retriever generally goes to the second Earl of Malmesbury, a sportsman who established Britain’s first Lab kennel somewhere around 1810.

The Kennel Club (England) recognized the Labrador Retriever in 1903. AKC recognition followed in 1917.

Another decade would pass before Labs caught the eye of American hunters. In a 1931 article about the first retriever field trial held in the United States, a New York Times reporter observed that “retrievers are not so very well-known in this country.” But, he noted, “Many field trials are held in England with this breed and those who have watched the dogs hunt declare they furnish the acme of excitement at this sport.”

Labrador Retriever - Red Claud's Ale Buttermilk Sky

U.S. sportsmen were soon in agreement, and Lab numbers started to rise. To A. Nelson Sills, a director emeritus of the Labrador Retriever Club, it was no surprise when the breed’s popularity spread outside the hunting and field-trialing community, starting in the 1960s. “There was no one particular event,” he says. “It was just that more and more people began to see them, and see their versatility.”

Pretty soon, they were standing beside the German Shepherd Dog as the most popular four-legged guides for the blind, getting their paws into search and rescue, showing up Poodles in obedience trials, comforting the sick in hospitals, and nudging the Cocker Spaniel out of living rooms all over the country.

Today, Labs pop up anywhere that canine work needs doing. “Their excellent scenting ability, friendly nature, and willingness to work anywhere with anyone at any time has made them popular with customs agents, law enforcement, border patrol, and the military,” Debby Kay, of Chillbrook Labrador Retrievers, says. “While the vast majority of Labradors serve as drug- or explosive-detection dogs, these are not the only detection jobs they can perform. Labradors continue to make news as they expand their sniffing abilities into new scenting frontiers.” This includes helping scientific researchers to locate rare Arctic wildlife in frozen wastelands, and the Motion Picture Association of America’s use of Labs to sniff out illegal DVDs on the Asian black market.

The Essentials

“There are three essentials to the Labrador that are interchangeable in order of preference,” wrote Anne Rogers Clark, “its temperament, coat, and tail.”

The short, dense, weather-resistant coat—whether yellow, black, or a luscious shade of brown known as chocolate—should be fairly hard to the touch. An old-time breed expert wrote, “The smooth or short-haired dog is preferred because in frosty weather, the long-haired kind become encumbered with ice when coming out of the water.” In Newfoundland, a Lab would be assigned to a fishing boat to retrieve the fish that came off the trawl. Accordingly, in addition to having natural instincts as a retriever, the dog had to have a coat that would withstand the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

The standard describes the Lab tail as “very thick at the base, gradually tapering toward the tip, of medium length and extending no longer than to the hock. The tail should be free from feathering and clothed thickly all around the with Labrador’s short, dense coat, thus having that peculiar rounded appearance described as the otter tail.”

Why all this attention to the tail? Don’t some breeds get by without any tail at all? In a 1998 AKC Gazette article, breed authority Dr. Bernard Ziessow provided the answer:

“Since the Labrador is a swimming breed, a water dog, its tail is more than a mere appendage; it serves as a rudder. It is constantly moving back and forth as the dog swims and aids the dog in turning. Short or thin tails just wouldn’t do the job.”

The Lab standard also describes the breed’s characteristic temperament: “True Labrador Retriever temperament is as much a hallmark of the breed as the ‘otter’ tail. The ideal disposition is one of a kindly, outgoing, tractable nature; eager to please and nonagressive towards man or animal. The Labrador has much that appeals to people; his gentle ways, intelligence and adaptability make him an ideal dog.”

In defining a Lab’s primary attributes, Ziessow concluded that “the most important might be disposition. The evidences of a good temper must be regarded with great care since his utility depends on his disposition. If a dog does not posses true breed temperament, he is not a Labrador.”

The “utility” the good doctor refers to goes hand in hand with the breed’s well-known eagerness. Lots of dogs are capable of pleasing you, but a Lab lives to please you. “Everything they do for you, they do with a wagging tail,” an agility handler says about Labs. We may never know exactly what’s going on inside their broad and noble heads, but one gets the feeling it involves lots of exclamation points:

Lab dog 1968 winner You want me to swim a few hundred yards across a half-frozen lake and retrieve a dead duck—and you want me to do it again and again all day long? Cool! Let’s get started!”

“You want me to guide a blind person through the teeming streets of the city? Wow! Love to!”

“You want me learn a complicated obedience routine and perform it flawlessly for a judge? Well, if that little scrap of ribbon means that much to you, count me in!”

“You had a rotten day and you want me to rest my head on your knee and look up adoringly, like you’re the greatest thing since kibble? Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!”

Will America’s love for Labs ever grow cold? Let’s hope not. In times like these, we need them more than ever. In a world where selfishness is encouraged as though it were a virtue, where we spend hours online building virtual shrines to our own egos, and where the word “loyalty” is encountered more on marketing spreadsheets than in the human heart, the selfless devotion of a good Lab can be inspirational. Technology has made being a “friend” easy, but being a best friend has never been more difficult. The Labrador Retriever reminds us that the only way to have a best friend is to be one.