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 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, however all black Labs are typically active, friendly and loyal. They form strong bonds with their family, but also enjoy meeting new people and other dogs.
- History and the color genetics
- English vs American black Labs
- Temperament traits
- Training and exercise for your black Lab
- From puppyhood to old age care
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 than this when they are adult. 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 success in field trials. The 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.
Where Do Black Labs Come From?
Did you know, the first Labradors were descendants of a now extinct breed known as the St John’s Water Dog. This breed was also the source of the much 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.
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. Albeit often with white markings.
How Is The Black Color Inherited In Labs?
Do you ever feel like you see more black Labs than any other color? That’s because you do! 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 routinely euthanized at birth!
Black is 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 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 Labs vs Chocolate Labs
If you aren’t a fan of genetics, look away now! 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. A puppy gets one gene from each parent. There are three possible combinations
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.
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:
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 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 you can read about in the our silver Lab article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 a puppy, check out this article: Choosing the Right Dog.
Rescuing a Black Lab
Rescuing a 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:
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