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Nick Ridley, Animal Photography
Good-looking, smart and fun-loving, the Lab has a a lot going for him. He’s large, but not too large, he’s calm and easygoing when he’s not exuberantly fetching a tennis ball or a bird. He’s a do-it-all kind of dog.
The 2008 tearjerker “Marley and Me” told the story of a rambunctious Labrador Retriever puppy and his influence on his family. Marley was played by a Lab named Jonah, who stole the film from co-starts Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson.
The Labrador Retriever has consistently ranked as the most popular purebred dog in the United States for more than 10 years, according to the American Kennel Club. The AKC registers more than a hundred thousand new Labrador Retrievers each year, but when you take into account all the Labs never registered at all, or registered with another organization such as the United Kennel Club, the popularity of this stable, family-friendly dog is truly staggering.
A Labrador Retriever has the kind of versatility that other dogs only dream of. He can be a companion, show dog, hunting dog, canine athlete, guide dog, service dog, sniffer dog, search and rescue dog, and therapy dog. He enjoys jogging (health permitting), boating, swimming, hiking and more. If it’s active, outdoors and with his people, the Lab is ready and willing to participate in any activity.
All of those characteristics make the Labrador well-suited to a variety of active families. He’s perfect for homes with rowdy older children, but may be a little rambunctious around toddlers, especially as a puppy or young dog. Singles and couples who love the outdoors also match up well with this breed, and his size and even temperament make the Labrador a great companion for active seniors who love to walk and would appreciate a dog who looks intimidating, even if he is more of a lover than a fighter.
With adequate exercise, these versatile companions can handle anything from a small city apartment to a vast ranch. What they can’t handle is isolation: if you get a Lab, make him a member of your family, not an outdoor dog.
A nice Lab puppy can usually be purchased for $700 to $1,500. For this price you should expect the puppies to have been raised in a clean environment, from parents with health clearances and show or field championships to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies have been temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
You might think that the Labrador is a native of the rugged Canadian province of the same name, but that’s not necessarily the case. He was first known as the lesser Newfoundland — probably to distinguish him from the giant breed known as the Newfoundland — the St. John’s Newfoundland or the St. John’s dog.
Experts have a couple of different theories about how the breed came to be called the Labrador. One is that the name is borrowed from the Spanish word for laborer — labrador — which is certainly a fitting description, or that the breed is related to the dogs that accompanied Portuguese fishermen who trawled the Grand Banks off the coast of Labrador and its neighbor Newfoundland. Those dogs, known as cani di castro laboreiro, performed such tasks as retrieving items from the water, including fish-laden nets, and swimming messages from boat to boat. Sounds like a Lab, all right.
Whatever they were called, the dogs were known for their keen sense of smell, ability to find downed birds, and speed. British visitors to Newfoundland appreciated the dogs’ abilities and brought them back to England. There, they caught the eye of the Earl of Malmesbury, who acquired some of the water-loving dogs to hunt the swamplands surrounding his estate. The Earl’s son began breeding the dogs and it was he who gave them the name Labrador. The Kennel Club in England made the breed official in 1903.
Labs made their way back to North America in the early 20th century, imported by American sportsmen who admired their adaptability and work ethic. Since then, the breed’s popularity has gone up, up, up. In 1997, a chocolate Lab pup named Buddy became the first Labrador Retriever to make the White House his home.
The modern Labrador Retriever is an easy-going, easy-to-train dog who comes in three colors: black, yellow and chocolate. He also comes in three different body types, depending on his background and purpose.
The Labrador breed standard says that temperament is as much a hallmark of the breed as the “otter tail.” The ideal Labrador is kindly, outgoing and tractable, eager to please, and tends not to be aggressive toward people or other animals.
Those traits are the foundation of the Lab’s personality, but each dog puts his own spin on them. Some are serious, some are clowns, some are reserved, some never meet a stranger. You might hear that Lab personalities vary by color, but it’s more likely that a dog’s temperament is affected by the breeder’s goals. Labs from breeders who produce top-winning field-trial dogs are more demanding when it comes to exercise and training. They are unsuited to lying around the house all day while everyone is at work or school. More laid back Labs typically come from a breeder who shows dogs in conformation.
Before the age of two or three, many Labradors can be extremely active and destructive despite their breed reputation for calm dispositions. It's in their extended adolescence that many Labradors find appeal in swallowing rocks, socks and Barbie dolls, all of which -- and more -- have been surgically removed from these dogs.
Start training early; be patient and be consistent and one day you will wake up to find that you live with a great dog. Even so, there are a couple of Lab behaviors that you should expect to live with throughout his life. They are part and parcel of being a Lab, and nothing you do will change them. Labs are active, Labs love to get wet, and Labs love to eat.
Labs are active, unless they’re sleeping. It was probably a Lab who inspired the saying “A tired dog is a good dog.” Joint and overall health permitting, be prepared to give a Lab a couple of half-hour walks or runs daily to meet his exercise needs. The best part about having a Lab is that there are any number of fun ways you can provide him with physical activity and mental stimulation. Take him swimming, teach him to run alongside your bike once he is physically mature at 18 to 24 months of age, go hiking, make him the first mate on your boat, or get involved in dog sports such as agility, obedience, rally, tracking, flyball, freestyle — you name it, a Lab has probably done it. However, it's always a good idea to check with your vet before starting a new exercise program with your dog.
If you give him an outlet for his energy, a Lab will be the best dog you could ever have. If you don’t, you’ll be spending all your time and energy repairing holes in the wall, filling in holes in your yard, replacing chewed-up furniture and worse. Not because your Lab is a bad dog but simply because he has found his own special ways to entertain himself. Don’t give him the chance.
Labs love water -- any body of water puddle-sized or larger will attract a Labrador, and mud is considered a fashion accessory. The short, drip-dry coat of the Lab sheds water and dirt easily, but that’s of little consolation if the debris lands on white carpeting.
Labs love to eat, and they will try to eat anything. They are professional countersurfers, and they will eat anything that looks like it might be food. If nothing else, living with a Lab will teach you, your spouse and your kids to put things away if they don’t want them to be chewed up or eaten. Veterinarians call these dogs “Flabradors” because obesity is common once they hit their middle-age mellowing out stage. A measured diet, good supervision and plenty of exercise are a must to keep these happy retrievers healthy and out of trouble.
Labs are smart and highly trainable, but they don’t just magically turn into great dogs. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, countersurfing and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained or unsupervised. And any dog can be a trial to live with during adolescence. In the case of the Lab, the “teen” years can start at six months and continue until the dog is about three years old.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
The perfect Lab doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his background and breeding. Whatever you want from a Lab, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines. Here’s a brief rundown on what you should know about some of the medical conditions that can affect the Labrador’s health.
The most well known health issues are related to the malformation of hips and elbows (hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia, respectively). Eye diseases such as progressive retinal atrophy and cataracts are potential concerns. So is exercise-induced collapse, a muscle abnormality that affects the dog’s strength, stamina and movement. Other health problems that may affect the breed include heart disease, an orthopedic problem called osteochondrosis, panosteitis (growing pains), epilepsy and allergic skin disease.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it can be hard to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for these defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
Before individual Labradors can be included in the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) database, the Labrador Retriever Club requires them to have hip and elbow certifications from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and certification from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF).
Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines and her dogs have been "vet checked," then you should go find a breeder who is more rigorous about genetic testing.
Not every Labrador visit to the vet is for a genetic problem. Broken toes and torn toenails, cuts and scrapes, and foxtails embedded in the skin are just another day at the office for these big, active dogs. And like human athletes, Labrador Retrievers are prone to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. The cause of these types of injuries is not yet clear. Researchers are looking into whether anatomy or genetics are predisposing factors.
Labs also see veterinarians frequently because they have eaten something they shouldn’t. It’s not unusual for Labs to undergo multiple surgeries to remove hand towels, toys, corn cobs and other items they’ve swallowed that then cause an intestinal blockage.
Cancer occurs in the breed, most commonly in middle-aged to older dogs, but certain types of cancer can occur in relativley young dogs. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from two of the most common health problems: obesity (which makes joint problems even worse) and eating inappropriate objects. Keeping a Lab at an appropriate weight has been proven to add two additional years of life, and close supervision of what he’s chewing on can save you big bucks at the veterinary hospital. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
Labs are easy-care dogs who don’t need lots of fancy grooming, but there are a few important things to know about their care.
Item one: Labs shed. A lot. You’ll have less hair lying around the house if you brush your Lab once or twice a week so that the hair goes onto the brush instead of onto your furniture and clothes. A rubber curry brush and a metal shedding blade or wire slicker brush are your new best friends.
Item two: Labs are water dogs. When your Lab gets wet, and he will, give him a thorough freshwater rinse to remove chlorine, salt or lake muck from his fur, all of which can be drying or otherwise damaging to the coat.
Item three: Moisture in the ears can increase the risk of ear infections -- especially in a breed already prone to them (due primarily to allergies). Dry the ears thoroughly after a swim, and use an ear cleaner recommended by your veterinarian.
The rest is basic maintenance. Trim the nails every week or two, as needed. They should never get long enough that you hear them clacking on the floor. Long nails can make it uncomfortable for the Lab to walk, and they can get caught on things and tear off. That’s really painful, and it will bleed a lot. Brush the teeth frequently with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for good dental health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as is possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than in making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him.
For the heavy-set Labradors preferred by show breeders in the United States and the United Kingdom, the Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. offers information as well as breeder and rescue referral. For the middle-weight show-type Labradors preferred in most other countries, the National Labrador Retriever Club also offers such information and referrals. For the leaner, field-type Labradors who are best suited to more athletic endeavors, Working Retriever Central offers breeder classifieds.
Breeders should sell puppies with a written contract guaranteeing they'll take back the dog at any time during his life if you become unable to keep him, and with written documentation that both the puppy's parents (and if possible, his other close relatives) have had their hips, eyes and elbows examined and certified by the appropriate health organizations. Seek out a breeder whose dogs are active in field trials, hunt tests, agility, obedience and other sports that require athleticism and good health, and not just ribbons from the show ring.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Many reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Labrador Retriever puppy varies depending on his place of origin, whether he is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and show or working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
And before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Labrador Retriever might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult Labrador Retriever may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy.
With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Labrador in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Labradors available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Labrador. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Networking can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. Most people who love Labradors love all Labradors. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Labrador Club of America’s rescue network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Labrador rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Bulldog home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Labrador Retriever, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter.In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Labrador to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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