by   David Hancock

When any breed of dog becomes as popular as the Labrador has, it's inevitable that many will be bred for the wallet and not for the field. It is fair however to describe the Labrador Retriever, as the sporting dog of the twentieth century, since their development as a breed, popularity and prowess is undisputed – and it continues, with over 35,000 registered in 2015. In recent years it has been so pleasing to hear such good accounts of them; in the field, for example, Keith Broomfield’s successes with his Labradors Maverick’s Goose and then Kaliture Black Spruce, excellent advertisements for the breed and the sport. At Crufts 2012, the Best-of-Breed Show Champion (and American and Canadian Champion) Salty Dog of Tampa Bay, a top quality yellow, full of type and strongly-built without coarseness, really impressed. In the Gamekeeper Classes, the winner of the Gilbert & Page Trophy: Champion Warringah‘s Gundaroo typified the breed’s character and was shown in commendably hard condition. The Labrador needs refreshing as a breed in the field from time to time, with so many spoiled by unwise pet ownership and no release for their latent sporting instincts.  Whether picking-up or being picked as a companion dog by the dog-owning community, the Labrador is the retriever most people choose. In 1912, 281 were registered, in 1922, 916, and by the 1950s there were 4,000 registered with the KC each year. In recent years their popularity has known no bounds: 25,000 a year in the early 1990s and over 45,000 in some years subsequently. Being the nation's most popular breed has not been all joy but their wide use outside the show ring indicates their versatility and skill. Does over-popularity lead to decline?

  I have used them as tracking dogs in the jungle and overseen their use as explosives detectors and body seekers; they have rarely disappointed me. This is a breed that wants to work and yet so many are purchased by people who just want a pet and seem unembarrassed by a bored unhappy dog. It’s a breed too that has the good fortune to attract extremely knowledgeable breeders. When making a commercial video on the breed I was immensely impressed by the informed input from breed experts such as Gwen Broadley, Jo Coulson and Carole Coode; their knowledge and the range of their expertise was inspiring. In the shooting field the Lab rules the roost. In 1908, of the 106 dogs entered for field trials, sixty two were Flat-coats, thirty nine Labradors, three Curlies and two were inter-bred retrievers. The Flat-coats won 2 firsts, 5 seconds, 8 thirds and 3 fourths; the Labradors won 6 firsts, 2 seconds, one third and one fourth. Three years later, the Flat-coats won 2 firsts, 5 seconds, one third and 2 fourths; Labradors won 13 firsts, 11 seconds, 13 thirds and 6 fourths. Two years after that, Labradors won 20 firsts, 17 seconds, 19 thirds and 10 fourths, whereas Flatcoats won one first, 2 seconds, 3 thirds and one fourth, a quite astonishing performance in a field where change is not welcome. Even the popular press picked up this astonishing rise to fame. The Daily Mail in February 1928 stating: “Flat-coated Retrievers, which, in the early years of this century seemed to be invulnerable, have been side-tracked latterly, Labradors having eclipsed them completely alike on the show bench and at Field Trials.”  Flatcoats didn't decline, Labradors excelled!

   In The Field magazine of December 1909, an experienced sportsman of that time gave a view of the various merits of two retriever breeds: “Labradors – Quicker to retrieve and go out, hardier; stand exposure or heat better; short coat does not pick up mud or wet; a better dog for certain work, such as picking up after grouse or partridge drive, or stand at covert shoot; excellent companion to owner, but essentially a one-man dog; good nose and mouth as a rule, but often inclined to use eyes too much and cast forward if scent weak, instead of puzzling it out – at times with great success, but it is a fault to my mind. Flat-coated – Excellent mouth as a rule; in style slow, inclined to potter; nose good; inclined to be slack on a hot day in heather; very friendly and affectionate with master and everyone else; not keen on thick fences as a rule, though some keepers’ dogs are excellent at it. Given a good scent, I notice the Labrador easily beats the Flatcoated and has birds quicker. Given a bad scent, the Flatcoated will equal the Labrador, and probably beat him.” This is a valuable opinion from an experienced shooting man at a time when such a man would spend day after day in the shooting field. But the public really took to the Labrador, especially as a companion dog; the Flatcoat got 'overtaken' not out-pointed! 

   Opinions are still divided over whether the yellow-coated dogs have some qualities that the blacks don't possess. Studying the Yellow Labradors going through a working test a few years ago, their action in pursuit of ground scent reminded me of another breed at work and I couldn't place it. Then it dawned on me that they were working the cover exactly as a foxhound would. I believe that Foxhound blood was used with Labradors in the north of England in the 1940s, not to improve scenting but appearance. The head of the Labrador is more hound-like than the other retriever breeds. I have heard it argued that the higher tail carriage of the hound is often accompanied by an un-Labrador-like aggression. In his The Dog of 1872, the knowledgeable 'Idstone' wrote that the smooth-coated retriever "tracked his game like a Bloodhound". 'Stonehenge' writing in 1860 referred to a famous retriever of Lord Fitzwilliam that was by a bloodhound out of a mastiff. I see many hound-like actions in the Labrador at work in the field, perhaps because I am now looking out for it. But it is interesting that a few years ago, Bill Williamson of Staffordshire bred two black and tan Labrador pups from a yellow/black mating, with DNA proof of pure-breeding. A Swedish breeder has reported mis-marked pups in a purebred litter; some being black with fawn, some with brindling and some chocolate and tan. The gene pool never lies!

   In an article in The Field in 1941, Major CE Radcliffe described not just yellow Labrador pups occurring in litters but pure white whelps in Labradors and Wavy-coated Retrievers too, with a Mr Austin Mackenzie of Carridale, actually starting a breed of pure white Labradors “which were very handsome dogs.” I have never seen a ‘Hailstone’ Labrador, a black coated dog with ‘reverse Dalmatian’ white spotting. They were associated with an old strain of water retrievers on the Solway, one even appearing at Crufts, shown by a keeper and approved by the distinguished judge, Lady Howe, as a true colour for the breed. It is worth noting that the first registered yellow Labrador came from two black-coated parents. Most yellows can be traced back to Major Radcliffe’s dog Neptune. Major Radcliffe, with Major and Mrs Wormald, making the greatest contribution to the development of the yellows between the two World Wars. But whether yellow or black this breed is a triumph of performance over preference and shows no sign of losing its remarkable range of skills. But how can we retain the real Labrador, in coat-colour, construction and breed style - huge energy, great enthusiasm, impressive athleticism and a gentle temperament?

The Crufts judge of Labrador bitches at the 2000 show concluded that: "I had two overall concerns...excess weight and movement...Some promising bitches spoilt their chances by moving close behind or were pinning in front." The KC claims that this show contains 'the best of the very best' in each breed exhibited. For Labradors at this premier show to be overweight and display faulty movement is alarming. At this same show, the judge of the Labrador dogs (ie males) observed: "I had a few heads resembling Pyreneans (i.e. Mountain Dogs) rather than Labradors, on the move there were feet coming towards me that were more like lily-pads and shoulders that made me despair. The latter point not being helped by excess weight..." If these are the top dogs in this breed in the show world, what are the rest like?

Other judges looking over Labradors at different shows wrote: "The diversity of type and the prevalence of coarse heads and poor tails gives cause for concern for the future"..."My main criticism is mouths. I found 5 from all the classes which were really bad"..."I would like to mention incorrect mouths. I have never come across so many variations before and some were quite severely wrong." A gundog's mouth is rather important! These remarks by judges were made about dogs bred to a carefully-written standard and change hands for several hundreds of pounds. A regular comment from show ring judges in 2009 on the gundog entry was the exhibiting of overweight dogs, especially Labradors. Obesity in any working dog is a sin and any sensible judge should send such a dog to the back of the class, however shiny the coat. Labradors have long been known to be "gross feeders", liable to put on flesh. Being overweight inhibits field performance and places needless extra demands on the heart of the dog. Extra demands are also made by the construction faults listed by the 2009 Crufts judges. Unsound movement, especially when rooted in incorrectly placed shoulders which limits endurance through the additional strain imposed on the forequarters. This is a serious disadvantage in a working gundog.

More concerning however are the remarks made by the judges at Crufts 2011 on construction and therefore movement: Labrador Retrievers – “Quite a few dogs that presented a glorious outline standing but reminded me more of a ‘Robin Reliant’ on the move as they crossed their legs coming or were almost single-tracking going away. In front movement much of this can be put down to shortness and straightness of the upper arm.” Physical movement apart, are today's Labradors moving away from the true anatomy for the breed? I see far stockier, shorter-backed, heavier-headed and much taller specimens nowadays than in previous years. If you study portrayals of dogs from the early years, they are much longer in the back, lower at the shoulder, lighter-headed and slimmer - with a hint of greater athleticism. If we lose both the distinctive yellow coat and the true construction: the graceful head, the lithe power and the flexible back, then we lose the breed. How did Lorna, Countess Howe's dogs gain their fame? They were not short-backed, huge or heavy-headed.

Popularity alone can spoil a breed as the puppy-farmers and pet shops cash in. Both field and show dogs can be bred to the wrong template, with the field dogs becoming too 'whippety' in the pursuit of extra pace and the show dogs becoming too heavily-built to be good working gundogs. You wonder too how many potentially good dogs have been 'put in the bucket' at birth because their coat-colour failed to meet the strictures of the Breed Standard. Is an outstanding Labrador Retriever in a 'hailstone' coat or black and tan jacket not a benefit to the breed? I see 'yellow' Labradors that are not yellow at all, more tan or cream, but they seem acceptable. We really should stop coat-colour dictatorship in dogs; if a colour is in the gene-pool that alone should permit acceptance. But if we allow dogs with Rottweiler heads, Bullmastiff torsos, Foxhound tails and an angry look in their eyes to become acceptable Labrador Retrievers then we are going to lose the real breed and that would amount to a considerable loss - in the gundog world alone. Judges and fanciers alike will need to be vigilant in the coming years or we could lose the real Lab.