The English Lab has to be one of the most beautiful dogs in the world. And with an amazing temperament to go with those good looks, he must come close to perfection on four legs.
Despite being a gun dog enthusiast who has trained several American type Labradors, I totally understand the appeal of the English Lab with his classic, handsome, features.
And like a few other gundog trainers I have experimented with bringing English Lab lines into my life.
I have been privileged to share my life with a wonderful English chocolate Lab for some years now.
In this article I wanted to explore some of the differences between the American and the English Lab
And to share some of my personal experience in living with and training both these amazing types of Labrador Retriever.
I’ll be delving into every aspect of finding and owning your first English Labrador and sharing some of my favorite pictures of English Labs with you.
We’d love to see your dogs.
If you haven’t taken the plunge yet into life with one of these beautiful dogs, I’ll help you decide if this is the right dog for you.
We’ll discuss the roles that English Labs play, in our lives and our society, and why they are so loved and popular.
English Vs American Labs
Around the world, the Labrador Retriever has been split into two very different types of Lab.
One branch of Labradors, has been developed into a strain of amazing family pets, while the other has been developed into a strain of incredible, athletic, hunting companions.
This split in the breed has happened in many countries, not just in the USA.
Why are they called English Labs?
The name English Labrador, is a bit of a misnomer. And somewhat confusing for some of our European readers.
It’s simply that as the breed became divided into these two separate types of Lab, based on their roles as either pets or hunting companions
The two strains of Lab were given different names in the USA, from the names that they have been given in the UK
In England, the English Lab is called a Show or Bench Labrador.
To those living in Britain, English Lab simply means a lab that was born in England.
The American Lab is called a working or field bred Lab in Britain. And an American Lab to an Englishman, is simply a Labrador born in America.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be sticking to the terms English Lab for show or bench Labradors, and American Lab for working or field Labradors.
And we’ll be looking at the key differences between these two strains of the same breed of dog.
English Labrador Retriever Appearance
You don’t need me to tell you what the world’s most popular breed of dog looks like.
A Labrador is an instantly recognizable breed the world over.
Two very classic features are his handsome chiselled head, and his thick tapering otter tail.
English Lab head
The English Lab has a larger, heavier head than the working type Lab.
American Labs will often have a narrower skull with a less distinctive ‘stop’ – thats the point where the skull rises upwards quite steeply from the base of the muzzle.
You can see the marked ‘stop’ nicely on this yellow English Lab
The English Lab has large kindly eyes, set well apart in his broad skull while his American cousin’s eyes may be a little closer together.
English Lab body shape
The ‘broad’ theme may continue as we leave the head of this beautiful dog and pass along his body towards his tail.
His neck is strong and in proportion to his head, his chest is broad and deep, and his hindquarters well muscled and powerful.
And that classic tail that we all love so much is heavy and sweeps downwards behind him.
The American Lab when viewed from the front is often a more narrow dog.
He has a leaner appearance and gives the impression of a dog built for speed and agility, as well as strength and power.
Are English Labs shorter?
The deep broad chest of the English Labrador may give the impression of a much shorter legged dog than the American strain.
But in some cases these show line dogs are actually slightly shorter in the leg, in proportion to their spine, than working strain Labs
English Lab otter tail
The thick otter tail tapering to a point may be a hazard to the china on your coffee table, but it is a beautiful thing, and something that always enhances the appearance of a Labrador.
In some cases, the American Lab seems to have dispensed with the otter tail altogether, and has a rather more whippy appendage with a curve or upward sweep rather than the low carriage of his show bred cousins.
These then are the key features of the English Lab that set him apart from his working strain or American relatives.
- Broad head and neck with strong features
- Deep broad chest and slightly shorter legs
- Thick tapering tail carried low
Generally this show bred dog is a stockier, chunkier dog than the Lab bred to work as a hunting companion.
And it is this stocky, chunky, and let’s be honest, cuddly, appearance that many people find so very attractive.
English Labrador coat
It’s no surprise that a dog originally bred to withstand the icy waters of Newfoundland is endowed with an amazing, waterproof, double coat.
And while they may never be expected to swim in sub-zero temperatures, English show labs have retained their wonderful coats to this day.
At the same time, some of our working lines of Labrador have lost this thick coat.
Not all American Labs have the double coat that you find on Labs in the show ring.
It may seems slightly odd that the working dog should have lost his working coat, until you consider where the breeding pool of American Labs comes from – we’ll look at that in a moment
English Lab weight
The build of the show line Lab is often reflected in his weight. He may be heavier than an American Lab of the same age. Starting from early puppy hood and going right up to maturity.
You can find plenty of information and growth charts in my article on puppy development but remember that your English Lab puppy may be at the higher end of the weight spectrum.
English Lab Temperament
There are differences in temperament between English and American Labs, but they are not always as distinctive and well-defined as we might like.
Both strains are friendly, kind natured dogs, but the English Lab may in some cases be less energetic and driven outdoors. In some respects this may make him easier to control.
That’s because he isn’t rushing here there and everywhere looking for something to hunt.
On the other hand, the English Lab may also be more playful and distractible. In some respects this can make him harder to control as he may be more inclined to play with other dogs than to fetch a ball for you
American Labs are very tenacious, athletic dogs with powerful hunting and retrieving instincts.
They need a lot of exercise, and if provided with this exercise and the mental stimulation that comes from training and working, they can make very relaxing companions at home.
However, if the mental and physical requirements of the American Lab are not fully met, he can be a restless and destructive housemate.
The English Lab on the other hand, may be more relaxing company, even if he doesn’t get a full work out each morning. He may be quite bouncy when young but often matures into a very gentle and loving dog.
English Lab colors
English labs come in three key colors: black, chocolate and yellow. The yellow variety can range from a pale cream to a rich deep golden color.
But most yellow English Labs tend to be a paler yellow or cream. The richer, darker fox-reds tend to be from working lines
Silver English Labs
You may have heard that there is a new (and controversial) color Labrador.
These are the silver Labs. The silver color is caused by a gene that dilutes the chocolate coat and is registered as chocolate by the AKC.
You can delve into the controversy surrounding these dogs in my in-depth guide to silver Labs.
You are less likely to find silver English Labs (as opposed to American Labs) simply because the color is not recognised in the show ring.
Where did English Labs come from?
The Labrador breed was established in Newfoundland by pioneering English settlers who bought their hunting and fishing companions with them from England.
So in a sense, all Labradors are English, despite the fact that all early Labradors were working dogs.
I’ve written about the history of the breed in some detail, and it’s a truly fascinating story.
The split between the English and American labs came later, when the Labrador grew in popularity as a pet during the twentieth century. And as we have seen, it is a division based not on geography, but on role.
Until the 1940s the breed was essentially one strain, and one type. The breed standard was based on this type, and on the role of the Labrador as a working retriever.
Then, over the next few decades, two different types of breeder emerged, and with them, the two different strains of dog.
Is there a different breed standard for English Labs?
As far as the breed standard is concerned, there is only one Labrador Retriever, and in theory all Labrador Retrievers should meet the breed standard, or at least come pretty close to it.
Dogs exhibited at dog shows are judged against that breed standard, so you would assume that any divergence would be on the part of the working dog lines.
However, breed standards are open to interpretations and because of that, there have been changes on both sides of the divide. With show dogs becoming more heavily built as working dogs have become more ‘racy’.
Why did Labradors split into English and American Labs
As dogs are physically capable of producing a litter each year, it doesn’t take long for the effects of selective breeding to begin to take place.
Exhibiting dogs became increasingly popular in the second half of the twentieth century, and for the first time, generation after generation of Labradors that were never required to work as retrievers, were bred.
Over time, when dogs are bred for the show ring, exaggerations in type often creep in.
A certain look becomes fasionable and breeders select for that look. That’s how heavier bodies, bigger heads and shorter legs can quickly become established
At the same time, those working their dogs were increasingly breeding not just hunting companions, but dogs aimed at succeeding in competitions known as field trials.
In both the USA and the UK, the main breeding pool for Labradors is found in the field trial community. Where breeders are competing their dogs for the coveted title of Field Trial Champion.
Such a title enables the breeder to earn stud fees from their champions dogs.
Field trials are competitions where speed and drive are rewarded, less than the steadiness and endurance of old. These are specialised competitions, where dogs are rewarded for special skills and where appearance counts for little.
Thus our American labs were selected for their retrieving and marking skills and for their athleticism and speed, without much consideration for their appearance.
The split took place over a relatively short time in history, and was almost complete within five decades.
Of course not all Labradors are an extreme example of one type or another. And you can see examples of dogs similar to this moderate black English Lab, in American Labs lines too.
English Lab health
Like all pedigree dog breeds, the Labrador Retriever has its fair share of genetic diseases.
Many of these inherited conditions can be avoided by choosing puppies from health tested parents
This isn’t because these dogs inherit an obesity gene, or are lazy, but is more likely to be a result of over-feeding due to an acceptance of higher weight levels within the English Lab community.
It’s harder to keep your dog slim, if your friend’s dogs are all overweight. But it is worth doing as studies have shown that avoiding obesity in your Lab is the single most important thing you can do to keep your dog well and to give him a long and happy life.
Is an English Lab the right dog for me?
Both types of Labrador share many features in common. They are big, powerful, bouncy when young, and messy dogs.
Before you think about what type of Labrador is right for you, have a think about whether now is the right time for your Labrador adventure to begin with this article: 6 things to consider before getting a Labrador
When you are confident that you want a lab, you’ll need to consider whether an English Lab is the right dog for you.
If you just want a relaxed family pet, or the appearance of your dog is important to you, then an English Lab may be a simpler choice than a Lab from working lines.
There are breeders trying to bring classic Labrador features back into their working lines, but not many.
If appearance is less of a big deal, you have more choice. If you are an active person who intends to walk and train their dog extensively, then either and American or an English Lab will suit you.
If you love training dogs to a high standard or intend to use your dog as a hunting companion, you are likely to find an English Lab a little more frustrating to train and may find he lacks the drive, persistence, and athletic ability that you need.
English Lab breeders
If you are looking for a classic English Lab with the chunky stocky appearance and otter tail, you will need to go to a breeder who specialises in English lines
There are some very handsome American Labs but you won’t find the really thickset, stockier dogs in a working kennels.
So you need to be looking at breeders who exhibit their dogs in the show ring, or who at least own dogs whose parents of grandparents have had some success in the show ring.
These dogs will have titles after their names such as SH CH (show champion) whereas an American lab is more likely to have titles such as FTCH (field trial champion)
Aside from this distinction, much of the task of finding a good breeder is the same for either strain of lab. Do check out the link to get you of on the right path.
Comparing English Lab with American Lab Puppies
From quite an early age, an experienced breeder or Labrador enthusiast will be able to identify an English Lab puppy from an American Lab puppy.
Here you can see a comparison of two of my Lab puppies at the same age
The puppy on the left is 3/4 English Lab and 1/4 American Lab, the puppy on the right is an American type Lab.
The American Lab puppy has a narrower face and larger eyes and ears in proportion to her skull.
If the chocolate puppy did not have some working genes, the difference between them would be greater
The differences between the characters of these two dogs is far most distinctive than the differences between the in appearance.
The yellow Lab Tess has the focus and sensitivity I have found very common in Labs from working lines. Yet she is supremely confident and assumes that everything will always be fun and interesting.
She is intensely interested in people and in trying to anticipate what they want. She likes other dogs but is not focused on them. She has a fantastic work ethic.
In other words, she has the ideal temperament for a working dog.
Rachael on the other hand is even more sensitive, but very distractible and intensely playful.
She can lack confidence in challenging situations, and is actually much less restful in the house than Tess because she struggles to ‘switch off’. And while she is a very keen retriever, it hasn’t been as easy to channel that drive in a useful way.
Of course, you get personality differences between different Labs of the same type, but the distractibility and playfulness of English Labs compared with American Labs, comes up in conversation quite a bit.
The future of the English Lab
There are many people in the working retriever community who are not overly concerned with the appearance of their dogs.
But there are others who would like to see Labrador with more classic English Lab looks, working in the field.
There are some like me who have dabbled with field training English Labs or English/American mixes. But none with any high level success in trials.
In the same way, there are a few within the English Lab show community that train their dogs to work in the shooting field, but to be honest, they are few and far between.
And that English Labs will continue to be a clear and perhaps increasingly separate ‘type’ from their American cousins.
Whichever type of Labrador you choose, you’ll have a wonderful and beautiful companion for many years to come.
This is still a largely unspoiled breed.
Let’s hope it stays that way, and that the English Lab will retain his love of retrieving, of wallowing in mud, and his wonderful zest for life
For more information about the wonderful Labrador in all his shapes and forms, check out Pippa’s Labrador Handbook, available online and in all good books stores.