A Lab is a Lab is a Lab, right? Actually, three types of Labrador Retrievers exist, says Mary Weist, breeder and AKC conformation judge. Before you can choose a breeder or a Lab puppy, you must first decide what type of Labrador Retriever is right for you. T
here’s the English type, a square-faced, thick, heavy-set dog with a distinct otter tail; the American bench type, a taller, thinner-bodied dog with a longer face; and the field trial type, a dog bred for working ability alone that can be either type, or somewhere in-between.
“There are definite personality differences in the three types of Labrador Retrievers in this country,” Weist says. “And much difference in their activity levels. You just have to pick the Lab that’s best for you.” For exam ple, Weist says, “The field trial Labrador Retriever is an active, strong-willed dog-and it needs to do its field trial work. The American-type bench Labrador Retriever is not as active and not as strong-willed; however, it is still more [active] than the English-type Labrador Retriever, which is a quieter, easier-going dog.
“If you’re a soft-hearted person, go with the English-type Lab. If you’re a little stronger willed, then the stronger-willed dog wouldn’t be a problem for you,” Weist emphasizes. In other words, know your own temperament and then match it up with an appropriate type.
Bed Warmer or Hunter?
After you’ve decided on the right Labrador Retriever type for you, consider what you plan to do with the dog. Will it be primarily a companion or a guide or therapy dog? Will the dog be used for drug detection or search and rescue? Will the Lab be a gun dog or compete in obedience or agility? Or do you have some combination of any of the above in mind?
“Know the purpose for the dog, and be true to the purpose,” says Labrador enthusiast and AKC hunt test judge Nick Mickelson. Know your goals, mission and primary use of the dog, then find Labrador Retriever breeders who are breeding that sort of dog.
“First, you have to decide if you have a specific purpose for the dog or if you’re looking for a pet dog,” Mickelson emphasizes. “If you’re looking to buy a pet dog, you don’t need to be nearly as careful about choosing a dog with a background proven in any particular venue.
It’s important for people not to buy a dog because it’s pretty, because it’s yellow, because it’s cute. It’s more important to buy a Labrador Retriever puppy because it has a proven heritage of being able to satisfy them for the use they intend.”
Real-world owners aren’t always sure of a purpose, though; they just know they want a Labrador Retriever. That’s why long-time breeder Marianne Foote suggests prospective owners first learn about the many careers available to the Lab. “That is more specific to the dog owner to decide what their activities are going to be with the dog,” Foote says. “And, I know not everybody can predict that.
People get dogs, then get interested in doing some of these activities after they get the dog. It would behoove them to educate themselves as much as possible on the different dog sports available to them.”
Choosing a Labrador Puppy
The prospective Labrador Retriever owner’s best friend is a reputable breeder, one who breeds healthy, quality dogs. In fact, choosing the right breeder precedes choosing the right puppy. The reputable Lab breeder knows his or her pups better than anyone and can best match a puppy’s personality and abilities with an owner’s personality and expectations.
“I would rely heavily on the breeder’s advice,” agrees Christopher Wincek, breeder and secretary for the Labrador Retriever Club. “They live with those puppies for eight weeks, and they know the puppies that are vocal; they know the puppies that are precocious; and they know which puppies are naughty and which ones are submissive.”
Breeder Ginger Watkins backs that belief: “I think you need to rely on your breeder’s expertise in evaluating puppies. Frequently, the Lab puppy that runs up and says ‘hi’ may not be the one you want to go home with.”
But you want to choose your own puppy. Why allow the breeder to help? Again, the breeder, who has probably shared his or her home with mother and puppies since their birth, is in the best position to observe the little Labs and determine temperament.
It’s unlikely an inexperienced buyer, or an experienced dog enthusiast unfamiliar with the breed, can make the same determination in a 30-minute visit to the kennel. “It’s very hard for a prospective dog person to come into a kennel and to know personalities of puppies,” Weist says.
Finding a Breeder
Where’s the best place to find reputable Labrador Retriever breeders with quality pups? Contact a local or national Labrador club where you’re likely to meet knowledgeable breed enthusiasts. Some clubs publish a breeder’s directory. “These people probably have to meet some criteria before they can list their puppies for sale,” Mickelson says. “And, because they’re in the ball game, and they understand the problems in the breed and what to be careful about, they’re more likely to take the right precautions.”
Ask a veterinarian, trainer, groomer or a friend who owns a Lab for the names of reputable breeders. Then make a few calls, and ask for references. It may require some effort to find a Labrador Retriever breeder with whom you feel comfortable, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
“There isn’t going to be the perfect dog breeder for just everybody,” Foote says. “You need to find a match for yourself. It’s like finding a doctor. You need to find somebody you can communicate with, and who communicates well with you, and who’s going to be a support for that first year [after] you take that Lab home.”
A Healthy Choice
How can you be sure the puppy you buy is healthy? A visual inspection can reveal a lot. Generally, healthy puppies should:
- Be a proper weight (not too chubby or too thin)
- Be clean and odor-free, and kept in clean surroundings
- Have clear eyes, not runny or red
- Have clean ears
- Have a full, healthy hair coat (no balding patches)
- Appear well-socialized, playful and friendly.
The Labrador Retriever is susceptible to a variety of inherited diseases, which cannot be pinpointed by a quick once-over. Hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and retinal deformities are the most common conditions found in Labs; cardiac disorders and epilepsy also affect this dog breed.
Prospective Lab owners should deal only with breeders who routinely screen for diseases and conditions that affect the breed. You should also ask to see the puppy’s health record. And, after you buy a Lab, take it to your veterinarian right away for a complete exam.
Yardsticks of the Breed
“Temperament is clearly the hallmark of the Labrador Retriever,” Wincek says. “The temperament is unflappable, 100 percent forgiving. I’ll tell you, if pharmaceutical companies could somehow put in a pill whatever makes a Labrador a Labrador, they’d put the manufacturers of Prozac and others right out of business.”
Wincek advises potential Labrador Retriever buyers to ask lots of questions about temperament. “Because the majority of Labs in this country are owned strictly as companions, he says, “that’s probably going to be its most important function: something to love and be loved. Temperament is the most important consideration.
“The other thing I recommend: Once you find a good puppy, remember that great dogs are also made, not just born,” Wincek emphasizes.
Raising a Lab requires commitment. “The first thing in choosing any pup is to remember it’s a long commitment,” Watkins says. “It’s not an overnight commitment. It’s like bringing an infant into your home. You’re making a 12- or 13-year commitment. Look around, then look around. It doesn’t have to be the first puppy you see. Make sure it’s a Lab that’s going to fit your situation.”
Ask yourself if you’re ready to own a dog. “Make sure that your life is stable, and that you’re going to be able to provide the right kind of environment and the right kind of support for the Labrador Retriever before you make a decision to buy,” Mickelson says.
Finally, don’t be in a hurry. It can be frustrating when you want a dog, but don’t rush. Search diligently for a sound, healthy Labrador Retriever and don’t feel compelled to buy from the first litter you see. “Take your time,” Foote says. “The wait is well worth it.”