Black Lab – A Complete Guide To The Black Labrador Retriever

Black Lab - A Complete Guide to the Black Labrador Retriever

The black Lab is the perfect companion dog. From sporting hunting roots to roles in the community such as support, service and therapy dog work, their intelligence and willingness to please really sets them apart from the pack.

When you weigh up black lab pros and cons you need to consider that the Labrador breed has now split into two types; the heavier set and more relaxed show bred British black Lab dog and the slimmer, driven working American style dogs. Each of these black retrievers has their benefits when it comes to life as a family pet. Labs form strong bonds with their family, but also enjoy meeting people and dogs.


The black Lab is up to 24 inches in height and up to 80lbs in weight. Depending on their ancestors, your black Labrador puppy may be a little smaller in adulthood. Labradors bred for the show ring (known as English Labs in the USA, and ‘Show Labs’ in the UK) have become heavier set in appearance than Labradors bred for hunting and retrieving ability, and for success in field trials. Your hunting or American Lab may have a lighter frame and a strong drive for retrieving.

The lifespan of a black Labrador is 12 years, and some purebred black lab puppies can live even longer given the right diet, exercise and a healthy dose of luck.

How I Fell In Love With Black Labs

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.

I feel 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.

Bred from a fishing companion that has been extinct now for nearly fifty years, this black retriever has been favored by hunters for generations.

Our black Lab, Teddy

Where Do Black Labs Come From?

Your Labrador’s descendants were a now extinct breed known as the St John’s Water Dog. This breed was also the source of the Newfoundland. This fisherman’s companion had a thick coat and looked a bit like a cross between a Border Collie and the modern Labrador.

Two English Aristocrats each owned a St John’s Water Dog and they created a breeding program that paved the way for the 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 with white markings.

How Is The Black Color Inherited In Labs?

You see more black Labs than any other color! The first recorded chocolate Labradors were born in the 1890s, but colors other than black were not popular until the mid 90s. Horribly, for many generations most puppies born with chocolate or yellow coats were euthanized at birth!

Black is what is known in genetics as ‘dominant’. If your puppy has inherited the gene for black coat color from either of her parents, this is the color that her fur will be. Those other shades can appear in future generations though, because a black dog can be a carrier of both chocolate and yellow genes.

Black lab puppy

Black Labs vs Chocolate Labs

For you fan of genetics, 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. A lot of eumelanin gives you a black Lab, lower levels leads to a chocolate Lab. If you push your brain back to high school genetics, you’ll remember that genetic instructions are packaged in your chromosomes.

Genes come in pairs located on those chromosomes, and those locations are represented by letters. Instructions for eumelanin in your dog’s fur, are found 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. Your puppy gets one gene from each parent.  There are three possible combinations

  • BB
  • Bb
  • bb

So a pairing of BB or Bb will give a black coat. Only bb will give a brown coat. 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 you have just read, BB and Bb aren’t in reality always black, and bb isn’t always brown. Your dog is also affected 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. Big E is dominant, and does not affect fur color. But little e is recessive, and, as a double act (ee) it becomes a switch. Two little e genes switch off the B genes that give you a black or brown dog, and leave you with 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:

labrador colors

These combinations show you that a black Lab puppy is the most likely result. They also explain how chocolate and yellow Labs were hidden for decades through selective matings and culling. But there is another twist to the black coat color tale!

Charcoal Labradors Are Dilute Black Labs

Not all black Lab puppies are a rich, jet black, color. Occasionally a Lab is born with coat color dilution. This genetic twist 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.

charcoal lab

Popularity of Black Labs

Black Labs are the most prevalent color, and their popularity remains unchanged in the sporting dog community. Owners of hunting dogs still prefer the black coat, but pet and show owners often show a preference for paler colors. Chocolate and yellow Labs can fetch higher prices from some breeders, not to mention the trend for fox red and silver tones.

Black Dogs Are Harder To Rehome

There is a sad phenomenon in pet shelters, regarding the rehoming rate of black dogs. These pups do not photograph as well, and are not as easy to rehome in person.

Many people don’t want a black dog. Prospective owners pass them by, regardless of temperament, in favor of the brighter colored pups on offer. But these adopters are missing a trick, because dogs with black coats have just as much to offer.

There are two strains of Labrador available from shelters and breeders alike. One bred for the show ring, and the other bred for the field. Although they are both Labs in the true sense, these separate strains have different traits, in terms of body shape and character.

English Black Labs – bred for show

English black Labradors are often preferred by pet homes as well as owners interested in the ring. The English black Lab, has a stocky body, broad head and thick otter tail. It has a reputation for being playful and a little slow to mature. They may reach heavier weights on the scales than working type labs.

Different types of Labrador -we compare English and American Labs

American Black Labs – bred to work

American black Labs are slimmer, less excitable, with more drive. They reach the same height, but their heads are less broad and their tails lack the otter quality possessed by their show companions. In contrast to the playfulness of their show bred cousins, American Labs 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

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 your time for training sessions is limited, a more laid-back Lab, from show lines, might suit you better.

Black Lab Characteristics

The different Labrador strains have many features in common. A well muscled, balanced, body shape with legs and spine in healthy proportions. Intelligence, a willingness to cooperate and an outgoing, happy personality are traits shared across the breed.

Mismarked Labs with a white toe or spot on the chest occasionally appear but they are usually solid in color. The Lab has a double coat, providing warmth and waterproofing, webbed paws and a rudder like tail. And with practice, Labs are excellent swimmers.

Grooming and Coat Care

Your Labrador Retriever has a short, easy care coat, that will shed heavily at times. Mud can be rinsed with a garden hose, and a weekly groom with a stiff brush will help reduce the hair on your carpets, floors, and furniture. Some Labs have quite a strong smell and need the occasional bath!

Unless you walk a lot on hard surfaces, you’ll need to trim your dog’s nails. I use a grinder, but clippers will do the job too. And if you are feeding kibble, cleaning your dog’s teeth will help prevent dental decay. 

How Big Do Black Labs Get?

The growth rate and eventual size of your black Lab puppy once adult, will depend partly on whether they are from American or English lines, partly on their diet and nutrition, and partly on the size of their parents. 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 heavyweight end of the spectrum, and the American nearer to the lightweight end.

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

Black Lab Temperament

Labradors are renowned for their friendliness. There are downsides to this. Your sociable friend is more likely ask a burglar in for breakfast, than to chase him down the street. And friendly dogs at the dog park may want to greet every person or dog they come across.

Their bouncy nature can also lead Labs 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 sent flying.

Are Black Labs Smarter?

There’s a bit of a myth in the sporting dog community that intelligence has been prioritised in black colored labs in a way that it has not, in chocolates and yellows. 

It’s true that to get recessive colors like yellow and chocolate you need to make some breeding choices based on the parents color. But responsible breeders will still focus on factors like temperament and trainability. And almost all Labs are highly trainable, and responsive pets. 

Training and Exercising Your Black Lab

Running, swimming, hiking, tracking, retrieving and even dock diving are all popular activities for adult Labradors. Your full grown Lab will need a good daily workout to maintain fitness and health.

You can exercise your dog 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. And retriever training will help keep your dog under control and out of mischief.

Training is an essential requirement for any large, powerful dog, Labs are no exception. Your dog needs to be able to walk on a loose leash, sit and wait quietly in one place for a while, and greet visitors with all four feet on the floor. You’ll find information to help you in our training section.

You can find some great ideas for games you and your Labrador can play together in this article.

Black Lab Health

The top priority when bringing two lab lines together should always be health. The best way to avoid health problems is by purchasing a puppy whose parents have good health test results. This won’t guarantee that your pup will be fit for life, but will stack the odds in your favor.

Joint and eye issues are recognized problem areas in Labs. Hip and elbow dysplasia are common Lab complaints. This condition ranges in severity. Adult dogs can have x-rays to assess their joints, and be given a score for their joint health. Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) is an inherited eye disorder causing blindness. To avoid your puppy suffering from PRA 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, any future mating would need to be to a dog that was Clear. A general eye exam each year is still necessary for all breeding stock, as there are other eye conditions for which we do not yet have genetic tests.

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 responsible breeder. There are few regulations around dog breeding so you need to take some precautions to avoid puppy mills. Many breeders advertise online now, and some puppy mills have attractive websites. Choose a breeder that specializes in Labradors, not in multiple different dog breeds, and prioritizes temperament. Do not put down a deposit before meeting the mother dog and the litter at their home. The mother dog should be relaxed and happy to meet you, and for you to meet her pups.

Choosing The Right Breeder

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. Good breeders are usually active members of your regional Labrador Club.

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

Ask the breeder for 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, PRA, or another genetic disease, be sure to check that the other parent tested clear. Ask to see the parents’ pedigrees if they are Kennel Club registered. To ensure good genetic diversity avoid multiple repetitions of the same names in your dog’s family tree.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson(paid link)
black labrador puppy

Good breeders ask lots of questions because they care about the homes their pups go to, and will be willing to provide answers to your questions too.

For more information on Labrador breeders and picking your puppy, check out this article: Choosing the Right Dog.

Rescuing a Black Lab

Rescuing your dog is a great thing to do if your circumstances are right. Especially a black dog, as this color can be hard to rehome. Reputable rescues will match you to the right dog, and find a good fit for your family. Our guides will provide more help and information:

Old Black Lab

Some of the most rewarding dogs to rescue are seniors. Elderly Labs are often calm and  quiet, happy to lie by your side, and take short walks each day. 

A comfortable bed with some memory foam to support aging joints, and a ramp to help them in and out of the car are small concessions for the pleasure of giving a grey haired old dog chance to be part of a family again.

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. When we got our lab my youngest nephew was 5 (pretty small size to me) & 7…. so off course our lab, BUCK, would get super excited and wanted to jump or run with them. But we were always there because we knew they are both kids learning. They have an older dog… so he basically sleeps most of the day and was very different from our Buck. But we told the boys how they needed to be around Buck while he learns to not jump on them. It’s been almost 2 years, Buck LOVES when they come over and they love running around with him… but we are still always there because at the end of the day its 3 boys playing and chasing balls, etc 🙂 but they love each other.

  2. I just lost my black boy at 14+ and I can tell you it was the best dog I have ever seen. No showboating here. He was really the nicest, the kindest, the most loyal dog ever. He’s fostered chicks, little kittens, little puppies, squirrels, he even tried to rescue a rat baby once. He was strong when he had to be. Aggressive when needed to be. And gentle, almost always.
    One thing you might have missed writing about our black boys or girls is that they have this incredible fight in them. They are fighters even if they don’t look like one. They’ll fight any disease. Any infection. Any problem. If you fight with them. They don’t give up that easily. At 14 years, six months, suffering from arthritis, and LP (very common in labs) he would still behave like a little baby. Get on the couch. Jump off. Run from the house. Do all those things he did when he was 14 months. I love him so much. I always will. And I hope I meet my boy mojo again. Black labs are the light we all need. See you soon my boy.

    • That is so lovely ❤️ But upsetting😢 I’m so sorry for your loss, he sounded such a lovely doggie. As I’m writing this, i have my girl Nelly (black Labrador) always with her face and paws on my lap. She goes wherever i go, and waits so patiently for me ( i have ocd and take a long time to wash) They’re the most loving creatures, always so happy to see you. Your comment was such a lovely story of your dog, which is so relatable!

    • They certainly can be. They get very large while still puppies and are still so excitable that knocking people over (even adults) can occur. They calm down as they grow into adults, and as they get training, but it’s something to be careful of, particularly in their awkward stages.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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?

  7. 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!