Black Lab – A Complete Guide To The Black Labrador Retriever

Black Lab - A Complete Guide to the Black Labrador Retriever

The gorgeous black Lab is one of the most recognizable and popular dogs in the world. In this guide we’ll uncover the rich working history of the black Labrador Retriever and look at how their origins have influenced their personalities and intelligence. We’ll discover how black lab puppies come in two different types, American and English black Labs, and find out how each type of black lab differs. And we’ll help you decide which type is right for your family and lifestyle!

The black Lab is up to 24 inches tall and weighs up to 80lbs. Depending on on their ancestors, your black Labrador puppy may be a little smaller than this when they are fully grown. Labradors bred for the show ring (known as English Labs in the USA, and ‘Show Labs’ in the UK) have become heavier and ‘chunkier’ in appearance than Labradors bred for hunting and retrieving ability, and for competitive success in field trials. And the hunting or American Lab may have a lighter frame and a strong drive for retrieving.

All black Labs are typically active, friendly and loyal. They bond strongly with their family, but usually love meeting new people too. The lifespan of a black Labrador is 12 years, and your pup could live even longer given the right diet, exercise and a healthy dose of luck.

Get To Know Your Black Lab

My first black Lab, Ted, came into our family home when I was a child. He was my constant companion almost into adulthood. He came on countless runs through the woods, spent hours playing ball in the backyard, but also sat with his head gently rested in my lap whenever I was sad. So it has always amazed me that despite the black Labrador being the most common color, it is in some ways the least appreciated. With an amazing history of working alongside human companions, and a fabulous temperament, this pup really is one to watch.

Our comprehensive guide will walk you through everything you could ever want to know about your favorite dog. From the origins of the black Lab, to finding and buying healthy black Lab puppies, we’ve got you covered. And you’ll find more fun and interesting information in the box above!

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The black Labrador has been favored by the hunting community for generations. But they were bred from a fishing companion that has been extinct now for nearly fifty years.

Where Do Black Labs Come From?

Did you know, the first Labradors were bred from a now extinct breed known as the St John’s Water Dog. This breed was also most likely the route of the rather different, and bigger, Newfoundland. This fisherman’s companion had a thick coat and looked a bit like a cross between a Border Collie and the modern Labrador we know and love.

Two English Aristocrats each owned a St John’s Water Dog and they brought them together to create a breeding program that paved the way for the modern Lab we know and love. Up until the early 1900’s almost all of these dogs were bred as shooting companions, and almost all of them were black. Albeit often with white markings.

How Is The Black Color Inherited In Labs?

Do you ever feel like you see more black Labs around than any other color? That’s because you do! The first chocolate Labradors that we know of were born in the 1890s, but colors other than black were not at all popular until the mid 90s. Horribly, for many generations most puppies born with chocolate or yellow coats were routinely euthanized at birth! And yet those other shades persisted, despite black being what is known in genetics as ‘dominant’. If a puppy has inherited the gene for black coat color from either of her parents, this is the color that her coat will be.

Black lab puppy

Black Labs vs Chocolate Labs

If you aren’t a fan of genetics, look away now! If you are, then here’s the nitty gritty. We’ll start by looking at Black vs Chocolate Lab coat colors. These both come from a pigment called eumelanin. More eumelanin leads to a black Lab, less leads to a chocolate. If you push your brain back to high school genetics, you’ll remember that genetic instructions can be described by letters.

Genes come in pairs. Here we are dealing with B genes at the B locus. B genes include a big ‘B’, for lots of eumelanin giving black, and a little ‘b’ for less eumelanin, giving brown. B is dominant over b. So a pairing of BB or Bb will give a black coat. Only bb will give a brown coat. A puppy gets one gene from each parent.  And that’s how we can get black Labs throwing chocolate puppies. As if they each have a recessive ‘b’ gene, so are Bb themselves, they can potentially come together in the pup as bb.

With me so far?

Yes? Great! Because this is where it gets slightly more complicated… Because in contradiction to what we’ve just seen, BB and Bb aren’t in reality always black, and bb isn’t always brown. This is because these genes are also effected by another set of genes, at the E locus.

Beautiful black lab waiting for their master

Black Labs vs Yellow Labs

The yellow shade of Labs comes from the e genes. E is dominant, and does not get in the way of the B genes. But e is recessive, and this does. It has the potential to stop the B genes giving a black or brown dog, and gives us yellow Labrador pups. So we have B genes – BB, Bb or bb and E genes – EE, Ee and ee. And these all interact with each other differently to give different coat colors. This diagram explains them nicely:

labrador colors

You can see from these combinations alone that the most common result is a black Lab puppy. But also how chocolate and yellow Labs were hidden for a time through careful matings and selective culling. But there is another twist to the black coat color tale.

Charcoal Labradors

Not all black Lab puppies are born the very dark shade we are most familiar with. Occasionally a Lab is born with the dilute gene. This genetic twist essentially tones down the shade of the dark coat color. In the same way that the chocolate Lab looks silver when this gene is activated, the black Lab looks charcoal.

In genetic terms, this dilute gene lives at the D locus. A big dominant ‘D’ keeps the coat at it’s full color, so only a ‘dd’ pairing allows it to become dilute. How this gene ended up in the Labrador breed is a contentious topic that we won’t fall into in this article.

charcoal lab

Popularity of Black Labs

Black Labs have always been the most prevalent color, but their popularity has changed over the years. In the sporting dog community owners of hunting dogs still often prefer the black coat, but pet and show owners often show a preference these days for the paler colors. Chocolate and yellow Labs can even fetch higher prices from some breeders, not to mention the less common fox red and silver tones.

Black Dogs Are Harder To Rehome

There is a sad phenomenon in pet shelters, which impacts the rehoming rate of black dogs. Not only do these pups not photograph as well, they simply aren’t as easy to rehome in person either. Lots of people don’t want a black dog.

Prospective owners often pass them by, regardless of temperament, in favor of the brighter colored pups on offer. But these adopters are missing a trick, because black dogs have so much to offer beyond their coat. And what they do offer differs slightly between the Labrador types.

English Black Labs – bred for show

There are two strains of Labrador. One was bred for the show ring, and the other was bred for the field. Although they are both Labs in the true sense, these separate strains can be quite different and are easy to pick apart if you know what you are looking for. English black Labradors are often preferred by pet homes as well as owners interested in the ring. The English black Lab has a reputation for being a little slower to mature, and a lot more playful.

Different types of Labrador -we compare English and American Labs

American Black Labs – bred to work

American black Labs are slimmer, less excitable but more driven. They stand around the same height, but their heads are less broad and their tails often have less of the otter quality that their show companions sport. Although still friendly, they are perhaps less inclined to play than their show bred cousins. And in contrast to this have a stronger drive to retrieve and hunt.

black labs are loving dogs, and make great hunting companions

English Black Lab vs American Black Lab

English and American bred Labs are both Labs, but their appeal can differ between owners. The English black Lab was bred for looks over purpose. Their broad head and barrel chest is matched with a straight, thick furred tail and a heavier weight on the scales. Black Labradors bred for show or as pets tend to be slower to mature, with a more playful personality, and are arguably less likely to run off after wildlife!

Which Type Suits You?

American black Labs may need more exercise and mental stimulation than English black Labs. They will benefit from gun dog style training involving retrieving exercises. If you work long hours and won’t have much time to spend on long training sessions, a more laid-back Lab, probably from show lines, might suit you better.

Black Lab Characteristics

Although there is no denying that the different Labrador strains have separated to a fair dramatic degree, these are still all fundamentally black Labs. And they do have some features in common that makes them who they are.

The Lab has a double coat, excellent for keeping them warm in and out of the water. And that’s an area where they excel, not least due to their amazing webbed paws! Their thick straight tail is described as having an otter-like appearance. And they are almost all one single color with no other markings. Mismarked Labs rear their heads from time to time, but this is generally just a case of white toes or a splash of white on their chests.

How Big Do Black Labs Get?

The eventual size of your black Lab puppy will depend a little upon their upbringing, and a lot upon whether they are from American or English lines. An adult black Lab will weigh anywhere from 55 to 80 lbs, and be from 21 to 24.5 inches tall at the shoulder. The English black Lab will tend to be closer to the heavier end of the spectrum, and the American nearer to the lower.

Finding your perfect black Lab puppy isn't hard, but there are things you need to know!

Black Lab Temperament

Labradors are well known for being friendly. Perhaps sometimes a little too friendly! This bouncy breed is more likely to leap up and lick a burglar than to stop him in the act. The downside of this is that they can be easily distracted at the dog park by wanting to greet everyone they come across.

Their jolly, lively nature can also lead them into trouble with people who are unsteady on their feet. Sharing a house with a toddler and a black Lab involves some careful management to ensure that little people aren’t accidentally sent flying. Although lovably clumsy, this dog also has a brilliant brain.

Black Lab Intelligence

Black Labradors have been bred for generations as hunting companions. Deliberately bred from dogs that were attentive to their handlers and relatively easy to teach commands to, they are absolutely an intelligent breed.

This color has also been very popular in the sporting dog community, and as a result you could even assume that their intelligence has been prioritised in a way that yellow and chocolate Lab’s was not. Because to get that black coat expressed is just a matter of mating two dogs, whereas to get the recessive genes you need to at least partially make your breeding choices based upon the colors of the parents as well as factors to do with temperament and trainability. But the most important factor when bringing together two Lab lines should always be one of health.

Black Lab Health

All purebred dogs have inherited diseases that are common to the breed, due to the limitations of even the large gene pools. Black Labs are generally thought of as healthy dogs, but there are some issues which you need to be aware of when thinking of bringing one home.

Avoiding Health Problems

The best way to avoid health problems is by purchasing a puppy from health tested parents. This won’t guarantee that your pup will be fit for life, but will put the odds in your favor.

The main areas to be aware of are joint problems and eye problems. Hip and elbow dysplasia are common Lab complaints. This condition ranges in severity and an adult dog can have x rays to assess their joint health, and be given a score to let you know how well their joints have developed. Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is an inherited eye disorder causing blindness. To avoid your puppy suffering from this either both parents need to be Clear or one Clear one Carrier.

If one is a carrier, your puppy might carry the gene too. If your puppy carries the gene and you wanted to breed from her at a later date you’d need to mate her to a dog that was Clear. A general eye exam once a year will make sure that there are no other vision problems manifesting over time.

A Complete Guide to the Black Labrador Retriever

How To Find A Black Lab

The best way to get a black Lab puppy is from a breeder. Most breeders advertise online now, so you will need to be careful to have a good chat with them before committing to buying a puppy. Do not put down a deposit before meeting the mother and the litter at their home. The mum should be relaxed and happy to meet you, and for you to handle her pups.

If you are looking for a pet you will need to decide whether you think a show or working temperament is better suited to your lifestyle and family needs. Make sure the breeder willingly shows you copies of health certificates from both parents. As a minimum they should be PRA clear, have a recent clear eye check from a vet, have good hip scores and an elbow score of 0.

If one parent has been shown as a carrier for dwarfism or PRA, be sure to check that the other has been tested clear. Ask to see the parents’ pedigrees if they are Kennel Club registered and you can check that they are not inbred by making sure the names are not repeated within the family tree. Good breeders ask lots of questions because they care about what happens to their pups, and will be open and willing to answer all of your questions too.

Choosing a Black Lab Breeder

Your main priorities should be to find a breeder who is scrupulous in their health testing, and make sure your potential puppy’s parents’ temperaments are both excellent. You might find it helpful to check out our article on Labrador breeders before you start searching for a pup. You might also want to read this article: Choosing the Right Dog. The information in these articles will help you avoid some of the common mistakes people make when looking for their new best friend.

Rescuing a Black Labrador

Rescuing a dog is a great thing to do if your circumstances are right. And rescuing a black Lab is even better, as this color can be hard to home. Reputable rescues will work hard to match you to the right dog, and help you to make a choice that fits in well with your family.

Rescuing such a dog can be very rewarding. We hope you will find our article Should you adopt a Labrador helpful. You can view a list of rehoming societies on our rescue page. They will also offer plenty of support and help once you bring your dog home. Especially when it comes to behavioral and training problems.

One way to find your black Labrador dog is via an animal rescue shelter. Find out more in this article

Training and Exercising Your Black Lab

Black Labs are intelligent dogs and training is an absolute essential for them and their owners. Not only does it help you to get along well at home and outdoors, it is a brilliant way to keep those big brains busy. Whether you are starting from the beginning and need to get to grips with puppy parenting, or you are looking to learn some foundation skills with an older dog, training is a must.

Black Labs are slightly more likely to come from working backgrounds than other Labradors, and if your black Lab is an American Lab, you might want to consider giving him the opportunity to do plenty of retrieving.

His breeding may influence how far you can go with advanced training if you are thinking of moving on later to agility or gun dog work. Although American Black Labs tend to be more driven to retrieve, English Black Labradors are still lively and fun loving dogs and many are also keen retrievers. Both types need a good workout every day to keep them fit and healthy and to help them relax at home.

You can exercise your black Labrador with a traditional walk, by going for a run together or through play. Retrieving games are a great way to give your Lab a lot of exercise without you having to travel quite such a long distance yourself. You can find some great ideas for games you and your Labrador can play together in this article.

Black Lab Grooming

Your black Lab needs no special grooming due to his coat color. In fact, the grooming requirements of your Labrador Retriever are some of the simplest among dog breeds. Their coats are designed to take care of themselves. Though your furniture and floors may benefit if your dog has a twice daily brush when shedding heavily.

Other than that Labs have a wonderful coat that requires only occasional washing. Weekly brushing will improve the look and feel of his coat and your Lab will probably love the attention, but it isn’t critical. As with any dog, you’ll need to trim his nails and brush his teeth regularly for good health.

Caring For An Old Black Labrador

Some black Labs can start to look old from quite a young age. White or grey hairs may start forming around their muzzle, giving them a bearded or grizzled look. This pale hair is nothing to worry about and happens to most black Labs sooner or later. As your black Lab reaches old age, you might find that he slows down a bit. His typical energetic black Lab personality may mellow. He will be less boisterous, and more inclined to spend the day in bed than bouncing up and down by your side.

Old Black Lab

The average lifespan of a black Lab is around 12, but if you are lucky your pup might be with you for 14 or more years. However, with old age come some requirements and adaptations that will help ease your friend’s final years. A more comfortable bed, ideally with memory foam, can help support those ageing joints. Ramps for accessing the car can really help them out too. Depending upon advice from your vet you might also want to switch them to a senior dog food, which is easier to digest and has additives that some believe can help slow the pace of arthritis.

Famous Black Labs

We all know, of course, that black Labs are renowned as skilled and courageous service dogs. They work as search and rescue dogs. Assisting our soldiers in the army and helping catch drug dealers bringing drugs across the border. Dogs like Jake, pictured below with his handler Mary.  Jake burrowed through the terrible smoking debris after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. And came to the rescue once more in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson

Black lab with owner

Famous Owners

Some black Labs are famous for having famous owners! Some household names who have given their heart to a black Lab include:

  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Queen Elizabeth II
  • Minnie Driver
  • Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Sarah McLachlan

What Is So Special About Black Labs?

The black Lab will always have a special place in our hearts, because they are such a loving, friendly and loyal dog.

black labrador puppy

From sporting routes to vital roles in the community such as support dog work, their intelligence and willingness to please really sets them apart from any other dog. Don’t forget to tell us why your black lab is so special to you, in the comments below. We love to hear your stories

Find Out More

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Loving and lovable, the black lab is always ready for a game!

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website


  1. My lab is very playful, he loves to dig and retrieve. He appears to be my my side for most of the day.i believe he is intelligent, too. His alertness is amazing time , he’s aware of his surroundings. He acts much more aggressively outside, I worry about him trying to go in the front yard off leash.

  2. I got a cheap wooden chair that I used often that was all free rein for my black lab. Because they can be little rascals, I’ve noticed that they like to chew on things that humans use. She eventually grew out of it and doesn’t chew on anything anymore.

  3. always had German Shepherds and then this little black lab came into my life, he is now looking forward to his 10th birthday and still a lovable obedient puppy, he is my shadow and so full of love. he found a wild domestic cat in the back yard when he was about 2, and she was having babies, he took a wet one and brought it to me, then went back and took another one, I found where she was and she threatened me, I put her babies near her and left them alone, to this day, those cats including Mama come find him and wash his face, curling up with him I feed and give water to them but they have never liked humans, he is their Daddy, and he loves them so much.. A Lab is an amazing creature, just so glad I have had the opportunity to have this relationship. He loves everyone, showing off his stuffed toys to anyone coming to the door. I am in my 80’s and he is my special companion, true love in an animal

  4. We have a black lab who is 11 months old, his is full of energy! He is great with my 5 yr old autistic grandson. My concerns are how to break him from destroying and chewing wood ( and all things plastic), as well as his bedding. Is it normal. He also feels the need to lick my arms and feet daily. Is there anything i can do for his mental health or keep him from being too bored?

  5. Our family lab, Raven,is everything this article covered.Smart.energetic,fun,and a great retriever.Best family dog in my opinion.Regular exercise is a must as they tend to get fat.I have had 2 labs and 1 chessy and have learned to limit table scraps.She is 6 now and still acts like a puppy when playing.One thing not touched on much,if you spend alot of time in or on the water this is the best dog to have hands down.LOVE OUR GIRL!