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Have you ever wondered: Why are Labrador Retrievers so popular? It took a while for the Labrador Retriever to catch on with the American public, but once it did – wow!

With origins in Newfoundland – not Labrador – and recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1917, the breed didn’t find its way onto the AKC’s Top Ten registry list until the 1970s at No. 9. Labs then jumped up to No. 3 in the ’80s and they have held the top spot for a record 31 years – since 1991.

Longtime devotees say the Lab’s full toolbox of attractions offers up something for everyone – first of all, versatility and temperament.

“Well-bred Labradors have absolutely the most wonderful temperaments,” says Judy Heim, of Turlock, California. “They are not the smartest breed. We leave that honor to the Border Collie, but Labradors are one of the most intuitive breeds I have dealt with. I started in Labradors 49 years ago, have handled all breeds and I have wondered if I would find a breed I preferred to the Labrador. I have not.”

Labrador retriever head portrait of each color: black, yellow, and chocolate.
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What Makes Labrador Retrievers so Popular?

Labradors, Heim says, with a typical temperament are “light-switch dogs. Turn them on, turn them off. If I want to go for a hike, run, swim, play ball, or hunt, they are up and ready to go. However, if I want to stay home and eat a gallon of ice cream, watch the Super Bowl, or a wach movie, they are thrilled to hang right there, too. Consequently, this makes the Lab an excellent service dog.

“A friend who worked at a large Seeing Eye facility for years once said to me they should call it the Labrador Seeing Eyes for the Blind because it was the most successful breed in the program.”

Because the breed is often shuttled between families from Guide Dog Raisers to the training facility and finally to its forever family, it requires plenty of psychological fluidity. And then again when it reaches retirement, another home may be in the offing.

Beyond Guide Dog work, Heim cites the breed’s prowess at hunting, bomb and drug detection, cancer detection, and diabetic-warning.

The Lab is certainly not your vanilla breed, but when asked what the most common questions are posed by potential puppy purchasers, Heim responds, “They are pretty ordinary. How much to feed, what to feed, and how often to bathe. “We seldom bathe them. A Labrador is supposed to have a beautifully wrapped coat and a bathed coat does not wrap. They are wash-and-wear dogs. A well-bred Labrador has a well-bred coat. It is a thick double coat. Bottom line, bathe as little as possible because it will get dandruff if bathed too often, plus itchy skin.”

Labrador retriever puppies sleeping side by side in the grass.
©Chatchai.b -

Commonly Asked Questions to Labrador Breeders

Some of the queries asked to Linda Maffett, of Bellingham, Washington, a breeder since 1987, are: What type of health testing do you do? What if I can’t keep my puppy, will you take it back? Will you, as my breeder, help me and provide guidance as I face challenges as a new puppy owner?

“I often feel people are bargain shopping rather than trying to find a healthy, quality puppy from a reputable breeder,” adds Maffett. “It’s frustrating.”

The inquiries most often addressed by longtime Lab breeder/judge Nancy Arbuckle, of Zionsville, Indiana, include: How much do they weigh as an adult? Does a female or male make the best pet? Do they shed?

While the breed has been atop the AKC registry for a record 31 consecutive years, its breeders have not sat idly by enjoying the top spot. They’ve been busy focusing on health, better structure and temperament, Arbuckle notes.

Heim agrees, “The changes have been highly positive. We have a lot more health clearances for our breed. We are quite the target for research groups and veterinary schools as they look for new DNA tests to improve the health of dogs today. We are a target because our breed population is so large. Therefore, if a research group is able to isolate a gene and establish a test for a genetic abnormality in the Labrador Retriever there will thousands of dogs tested, which is financially good for that facility. It is good for the breed, too, if the test is accurate.”

Maffett notes there are far more testing tools available to breeders today than three decades ago. “When I started in Labradors in the late ’80s we were only certifying hips through OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) and did annual eye exams. Now there is a multitude of DNA tests, as well as many other screening means.”

Labrador retriever laying down being pet next to a boy outdoors.
Wavebreakmedia Ltd / Getty Images Plus

Challenges in the Labrador Community

One of the biggest challenges facing the Labrador community today is the lack of interest in the fancy, and this is not just in Labradors, Maffett asserts. “There are far fewer breeders coming up who desire to be true ambassadors for our breed who feel compelled to love and protect it for its future. Simply put, we need more dedication.”

Looking ahead, Heim emphasizes, “It’s imperative the breed maintains its instinct to retrieve. “It, after all, is a retriever. We must keep the perfect Labrador temperament. I love it when I am at a specialty and Best of Breed is in the ring. It’s a hot summer day and all those big macho males are in there and while waiting our turn for our dogs to be examined, we often sit down on the grass with our dogs beside us and there is no quarreling, rumbling or posturing among the dogs. This is how it should be.

“In the world of Labradors, if a male continuously growls at other dogs, it’s the kiss of death. As long as I have been in Labradors, breeders have been adamant about protecting the temperament and we don’t accept anything less.”

Thanks to the internet, breeders worldwide are tightly connected today. Judges, like Heim, are able to place their hands on Labradors worldwide, and foreigners are plentiful at the annual Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac Specialty Show, the breed’s version of the Super Bowl.

“Labradors in the U.S. have not been affected by dogs brought in from other countries,” Heim says,  “Conversely, the American Labrador has influenced Labradors abroad. We were, in turn, impacted greatly by Labs from Great Britain that were imported in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It made a positive change with our dogs.”

But she notes breed standards differ: European ones are governed by the Federation Cynologique Internationale while those in the U.S. are under the American Kennel Club.

And while we’re on that subject, all three dedicated breeders emphasize the Labrador Retriever comes in three colors: black, yellow, and chocolate.

Learn More about Labs

They’re popular for a reason. Check out the AKC Marketplace for trusted, AKC-registered breeders. Know the best dog supplies and dog food for your Labrador, and sport Labrador Retriever breed gear.

If Labs aren’t the right fit for you, check out the full list of dogs ranked by registration.

Related article: Most Popular Dog Breeds of 2021
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