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The Perfect Companion & Family Dogs

by Joseph Dougherty

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Labrador retrievers are the without a doubt the most loyal and tolerant family dogs. We have bred and reared a number of them, and enjoy them a great deal. They are the perfect choice for families with small children, as these dogs are docile and very patient with tiny humans. The only caveat is that these are large, working dogs with all the energy of a breed created to spend long hours running in the field... as a result, prospective owners must ensure they have adequate space and time to keep these dogs at their healthiest.

Generally speaking, labs are happy, friendly souls, but they are rather easily bored. Labs have above average intelligence and learn quickly; as a result, they are the prototypical Seeing-Eye-Dog and Canine-Companion working dog. However, they are not, in truth, the Einsteins of the dog world. Labrador Retrievers make great family members, usually get along well with children and other pets. They will alert you to strangers, but are not "guard dogs", although they will offer protection to the best of their ability. Above all, they give unconditional love.

The author's dogs. Three generations of Labrador retrievers.

Three generations of labs, from L to R: Tasha, Maya, Hunter, and Katie. Katie is the grand-dam; Tasha is her daughter. Tasha whelped Maya and Hunter. Photo by Joseph Dougherty. Click image to enlarge.

About the Breed

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 (or knock down your grandmother) 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, this is a working dog in need of exercise to stay in shape and remain obedient.

Naughty dogs are usually just bored dogs.

Large nostrils, deep chest, and well-sprung ribs give testimony to the lab's stamina, and its wide jaws and muzzle give it the ability to retrieve even big waterfowl, such as the larger races of Canada geese. This is a stocky dog with moderately long legs; it 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 it goes about its 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 range from cream to russet.

"English" vs. "American" Labrador Retrievers

In the last several decades, a distinct difference has developed between selectively-bred dogs that hold true to the original breed and those bred "on the street" without due regard to lineage and appropriate crossing. The breed-true dogs are commonly referred to as "English style" labrador retrievers (aka "typical" labs because they are true to type), whereas the more degenerate, randomly bred dogs are "American" labs. The differences can be quite striking:

"English-style" Labrador Retriever "American-style" Labrador Retriever

This is the type of animal you'll find by looking for a careful, conscientious breeder. Ask your veterinarian to recommend someone, or contact the National Labrador Retriever Club.

- Weight: 60 to 85 lbs
- Conformation: thick and stocky, shorter legs, with broad muzzle and wide block head
- Tail: shorter, broad, "otter tail"
- Eyes: breeding stock OFA certified
- Hips: rarely dysplastic; breeding stock thoroughly screened prior to breeding


This is the type of animal you're likely to find in the newspaper or the local pet store.

- Weight: 70-120 lbs
- Conformation: thinner and lankier, long legs, pointier snout and thinner head
- Tail: long and thin "whip tail"
- Eyes: prone to cataracts; rarely OFA cert'd
- Hips: highly prone to dysplasia; breeding stock rarely screened



Yellow Labrador puppy. Photo by Joseph Dougherty. Click image to enlarge.

Is a Labrador Retriever the Right Dog for You?

My friends and family love labradors... but will yours? Their temperament is easy-going and very friendly, but they do require attention and lots of exercise. And like any puppy, need a great deal of training in the first year of life, with frequent reinforcement thereafter. Without training, they can be prone to dig, to jump up when greeting, and to bark. None of these are a problem with proper training.

Before you decide, ask yourself some questions. Can you resist buying the first cute puppy you see, on impulse? Are you prepared to make a commitment to a dog for the next 10-15 years, even if you have life changes such as moving, new babies, or kids going off to college? Full responsibility for a dog is not a job for children; it requires a responsible adult, at least supervising, and should be carefully considered. The commitment is not a small one; training a Labrador to be a pleasant companion requires considerable time and patience. Labs don't become well-behaved all by themselves! They require substantial attention and exercise throughout their lives; they are active and social animals and don't do well when stuck in the backyard and forgotten.

Labrador puppy chewing and digging can be destructive. Do you have an appropriate environment for a puppy and are you willing to live with puppy mistakes? Remember that Labradors are not fully mature until around three years of age, so that's a long puppy-hood. Are you willing to spend the money it takes to provide appropriate care, including quality food and supplies, annual vaccines, heartworm testing and preventative medicines, and spaying or neutering? Are you willing to wait for the right puppy from the responsible breeder of your choice? Remember, finding the best puppy for you is well worth the wait.

Buy a well-bred dog from a responsible breeder. Responsible breeders take care to produce healthy, typical Labradors with good temperaments. Don't bargain-hunt and don't buy a puppy from a pet store; often those puppies come from poor breeding, may have been kept in poor conditions with inadequate socialization, and are sometimes more expensive than puppies purchased from a responsible breeder. Responsible breeders do all they can to avoid producing serious problems, including aggressive or shy temperaments, hereditary health defects such as hip or elbow dysplasia, or early blindness from hereditary eye diseases.
This part is important:
Remember that "AKC papers" are not an indication of quality in the dog. They only mean that the dog's parents were AKC registered, and that doesn't require any kind of quality-control, merely the payment of a registration fee. The "papers" that you want to see are the vet clearances (eye exams, hip and elbow radiographic clearance, etc) of the sire and bitch.


Buy Your Puppy From the Right Breeder:

Getting a high-quality puppy from proven genetic material makes ALL the difference in the world. A lower quality dog is likely to lead to more headaches than joy for its owner, whereas a well bred dog will give you many years of joy and loyal service.

Tasha's second (and last) litter of mixed-color lab puppies. Photo by Joseph Dougherty. Look for a breeder who:


Labs LOVE to play fetch, and using a game as a training mechanism works very well.

The author working with his labs at the Skyline Prairie, Oakland, CA.
Click to enlarge.
Photo by Jean Dougherty

Care and Training

Although the Labrador retriever is the epitome of a family dog, it really only fits with a specific type of household. As a general rule, labs are fantastic for young, active families; they are less well suited to life in older households that are not so active.

A lab needs a family that is fairly active to satisfy its need for daily exercise and work. Daily walks, romps in a fenced yard, and games of fetch keep your lab obedient and healthy. Unless these needs are satisfied, your 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 jumping on people in its enthusiastic desire to say hello. The pup can also be taught early to shake paws and to fetch; the soft mouth and innate desire to retrieve can provide hours of play. Later on, the pup can learn to put its nose to use and find things that have been hidden for it.

A fast-growing Lab pup reaches almost adult weight within six months and can be a handful to train if left to its own devices. Early training is essential; if you wait too long, their rambunctious character will be difficult to manage. Puppy and basic obedience classes are recommended to teach manners. All members of the family should participate in the training, although only one person should handle the pup in the classes. Consistency is crucial: If one person allows the dog on the sofa but the rule is to stay off, the dog is going to be either confused or sneaky, so consistency between family members is necessary.

Labs need exercise and play every day. This is fairly easy to achieve because they LIVE to fetch.

The author working with his labs at the Skyline Prairie, Oakland, CA. Photo by Jean Dougherty

Discipline should be gentle with young dogs – no screaming at the puppy or smacking it with a newspaper, as these reactions to misbehavior are counterproductive. Older dogs who know better but intentionally choose to break a rule may be disciplined a little more firmly. Beating a dog is never appropriate, but sometimes it does take a fair spanking (either a whack on the rump above the tail or a two-fingered tap on the muzzle) to get a large adult dog's attention -- these are powerful field dogs, after all.

Training a puppy not to bite or chew is actually quite simple: each time the dog nips a person, place your thumb and forefinger over the muzzle. Push down on the dog's upper lips until they curl in and you can feel they are over the sharp little upper canine teeth... then give it a little sqeeze. This lets the puppy know just what it feels like when it uses its teeth on soft skin... and soon the nippy puppy learns to reserve its sharp little teeth for the tennis balls and chew toys.

Using praise and games to train is preferred over using treats -- labs are certainly smart enough to figure out whether or not you've got the treats with you, and may decide not to cooperate with the desired behavior if the treats are not forthcoming.

Feeding a lab puppy is more involved than simply buying a premium food and letting the pup eat its fill. As a fast-growing breed subject to hip dysplasia, the lab puppy should be fed a diet prepared for large breeds, or a regular adult dog food of less than 25 percent protein, to help avoid joint problems that can occur when dogs grow too quickly. Offer your puppy some food two or three times a day and take away what it doesn’t eat in 15 minutes. Teach it to sit before putting the food bowl on the floor to avoid his jumping at the dish and spilling the food.

American labs are taller or heavier than the preferred standard size; as a result, their lifespan is shorter than the English style. Most labs have a tendency to become obese, so their diets must be closely controlled. Adult dogs are fed only once per day. Older Labs enjoy the couch and the fire; if fed too much or not given enough exercise they will fatten up rather quickly.

Poorly bred 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, PennHIP, or Wind-Morgan clearance for breeding.

Labs are also prone to several eye disorders, including progressive retinal atrophy and cataracts. All 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 more difficult than buying a less popular breed, 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 is almost the perfect canine.










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