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America's favorite dog breed? The Labrador Retriever. Here's why.

October 14, 2020

When it comes to finding a lovable companion that’s smart enough to help with hunting tasks, the Labrador Retriever may be one of your best choices.

In fact, for the past 29 years the American Kennel Club has ranked the Lab the No. 1 most popular dog in the country from a pool of nearly 200 breeds.

“Labs are friendly, outgoing and high-spirited companions who have more than enough affection to go around for a family looking for a medium-to-large dog,” notes the AKC report. “They are companionable housemates who bond with the whole family, and they socialize well with neighbor dogs and humans alike. But don’t mistake his easygoing personality for low energy: The Lab is an enthusiastic athlete that requires lots of exercise, like swimming and marathon games of fetch to keep physically and mentally fit.”

Here’s a lowdown on other elements you can expect to find in the popular and versatile breed, which is known interchangeably as a Labrador or a Labrador Retriever.

Labrador Retriever appearance

Labs are easily recognized by their short, dense, weather-resistant coats, their muscular bodies and their expressive faces that feature broad skulls, strong jaws and kind, intelligent-looking eyes. Their thick, tapered, medium-length tails, water-resistant double coats and webbed toes help make them good swimmers. Coat colors range from black to brown (i.e. chocolate) to red/yellow to nearly white; some are also bred to be “tiger striped,” “trundle,” “brindle” or “tri-color” with various combinations of orange, tan and black. Eyes are usually brown in black and yellow Labs and brown or hazel in chocolate Labs.

Height: Males grow to 22.5 to 24.5 inches, females 21.5 to 23.5 inches.

Weight: Males usually weigh 65 to 80 pounds, females 55 to 70 pounds.

Life expectancy: 10 to 12 years.

Breed type: Sporting.

Fun fact: Types include the English Labrador and the American Labrador. The English-bred Lab is heavier and thicker.

Top job: Labs make excellent all-around companions and can be especially skilled at pointing, flushing and retrieving game. They can also serve as therapy, service or guide dogs and help with search-and-rescue efforts.

Bottom line: Labs can be exceptional companion pets, but their intelligence allows them to be useful helpers as well.

Labrador Retriever traits

  • They’re smart cookies. In one poll of professional dog obedience judges, Labs were ranked the seventh most intelligent breed of 110 listed (based on their ability to learn words, signs and signals and understand commands). That should make tasks like potty training relatively easy. The downside of that intelligence? They’re capable of manipulating you to get what they want; for example, they may learn that giving you extra affection or putting on expressions of woe may earn them extra treats. As a result, experts advise that obedience training begin during puppyhood.
  • They’re super friendly. Bring one into your home and it will likely bond and socialize with your entire family, your friends, your neighbors and all of their pets. Once they learn to control their natural exuberance, they generally get along well with cats and smaller pups. Do not expect your Lab to be a good watchdog since he may even be friendly to questionable strangers. Another caveat: Labs don’t like to be left alone and can be prone to separation anxiety; often that can be countered by tiring them out before you leave them alone.
  • They’re hard workers. Labs have a long history of making themselves useful, dating back to their origins as fishermen’s helpers (swimming for ropes, hauling nets, retrieving fish, helping people swim to safety, etc.) Once trained, they can be counted on to assist people in a number of meaningful ways.
  • They need to move. Some Labs can verge on the hyperactive. Plan on providing lots of exercise opportunity for these pups – at least 30 minutes of activity each day. They typically love walking, running, swimming, fetching and playing; if they can’t release their energy in healthy ways they may turn to bothersome avenues such as excessive barking or chewing. Be forewarned that Labs are not known for being quiet.
  • They can excel in agility competitions. Their intelligence and athleticism often make them excellent performers in such events.

Labrador Retriever coat and grooming needs

Your Lab’s coat will be low-maintenance compared to other breeds; for the most part, your pooch will only need a bath when he’s visibly dirty. That may be a relief if your strong, energetic pup hates the cleaning process. Other than that, experts recommend daily or weekly brushing with a natural or nylon bristle brush to distribute natural oils in the skin.

You’ll want to gently clean around your Lab’s eyes on a regular basis using a cotton ball and saline solution. Staining may occur in the fur around his eyes due to natural secretions; a cotton ball and hydrogen peroxide will clean that up (add a drop of mineral oil to his eyes first as a protective measure). Ears that look dirty can be spiffed up with a cotton ball and specially formulated ear cleaner.

Labs do need their nails regularly clipped, otherwise they could displace footpads and interfere with walking and running.

Vets recommend that you brush your Lab’s teeth with a soft toothbrush and doggie toothpaste every day and/or provide him dental treats or chew toys designed to help remove plaque. Choosing dry dog food over wet can also help deter plaque. In the worst-case scenario, unaddressed dental plaque can enter a dog’s bloodstream and lead to heart disease.

[Related: Pet Grooming 101: Maintaining a Healthy Coat for Your Dog]

Labrador Retriever history

According to Dogtime.com, Labs originated on the island of Newfoundland (off the coast of Canada) in the 18thcentury, quickly becoming invaluable as helpers and beloved pets to local fishermen and their families.

While their exact lineage is unknown, the pups originally known as “St. John’s dogs” are believed to be descended from the Newfoundland breed. By 1830, they had been imported to England to serve as hunting dogs. By the 1880s Labs were nearly extinct, but fans managed to maintain and build the breed until the American Kennel Club recognized it as a breed apart in 1903. The popularity of Labs skyrocketed following WWII, across Canada and England as well as the U.S.

Labrador Retriever health issues

Because Labs really like to eat, they can easily become obese if their diets aren’t controlled and they aren’t getting enough exercise. That can be especially problematic for the breed, since the extra weight can cause Labs to develop systemic issues with their knees, hips and joints.

To counter that, experts suggest keeping a close eye on their daily food intake, doling out meals at specific times rather than free feeding and perhaps reducing meal portions to compensate for treats given out during the day. Note that Labs’ vociferous appetites often spur them to look for extra food on floors, countertops, garbage cans and elsewhere; they may also experiment by trying to eat inedible items.

Other common health afflictions for Labs include the following:

  • Patellar luxation, caused by a dislocated kneecap
  • Canine hip dysplasia (CHD), a deformity of the hip that occurs during growth
  • Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), a joint problem in which the bone beneath the cartilage in a joint dies and breaks loose due to lack of circulation

Less common problems for Labs include distichiasis (abnormal growth of eyelashes); exercise-induced collapse (a genetic condition causing weakness after strenuous exercise); diabetes; muscular dystrophy; tricuspid valve dysplasia (a congenital heart defect) or entropion (a lower eyelid overlap).

Minor health issues may include retinal dysplasia, central progressive retinal atrophy (CPRA), hyperthyroidism, hot spots or cataracts.

Labrador Retriever activities

Most of the time, your Lab should be eager to walk, run, swim or play with you or with other dogs; in fact, you may be amazed at his stamina. Take him to the pool, beach, river or lake whenever possible, but do keep a sharp eye on him at first if he’s a puppy. Consider including him in hunting or fishing excursions, and perhaps teaching him to compete in agility competitions.

Fuel all that activity and keep your Lab happy, healthy and lean by treating him to a balanced, heart-healthy NutriSource diet. According to research, carrying extra pounds can shorten a pet’s life by up to two years — and a whopping 56% of all dogs are overweight. NutriSource combats that problem by formulating all its dog foods with L-carnitine, which helps convert fat into energy to build lean body mass.

Interested in exploring the traits of other dog breeds? Learn more about golden retrievers or another favorite, Boston Terriers. You can also find out which dog breeds are less apt to aggravate human allergies, or explore dogs that may be ideally suited to your home climate.

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