The Chocolate Lab is a friendly, confident and loving dog. And one that has a huge appeal as a pet. But a recent study has thrown doubt as to whether this cute color is as healthy as his yellow and black Lab cousins. While it’s true that this study suggested chocolate Labs might have a shorter lifespan and be more prone to health problems, the situation isn’t as clear cut as you might imagine. And there is a lot more to the chocolate Lab than just fur-deep.
Throughout the history of the breed, a chocolate Labrador or two (sometimes referred to as liver Labradors) has appeared occasionally in litters of puppies. Way back in the last century, puppies with this then undesirable color were sometimes even simply culled at birth! Black Labs were adored, and black was the only color considered respectable for a Labrador. But fortunately these days those attitudes are well and truly behind us, and the chocolate Lab has gone from strength to strength.
- Where did chocolate Labs originate from?
- Chocolate Lab coat color
- English vs American chocolate Labs
- Chocolate Lab size
- Typical temperament traits
- Are chocolate Labs stupid?
- Silver vs chocolate Labs
- Finding Chocolate Labrador puppies
- Chocolate Lab training
- Old chocolate Labs
I have been writing about Labradors for many years now, and there is no doubt in my mind that they are all wonderful dogs. But the chocolate Labrador is special. It is hard to explain why to those who don’t share their lives with one of these beautiful dogs, but if have one, you’ll know exactly what I mean!
Today I’ll share my experience of this amazing dog’s temperament and personality, and explore the myths and facts about chocolate Lab puppies of different shades and colors. We’re going on a journey of discovery, all the way from finding a chocolate Lab puppy to caring for an elderly brown Lab!
Meet Rachael, my Beautiful Brown Lab
All Labradors are beautiful, of course, but brown Labradors will always hold a special place in my heart. In fact, I am unashamedly biased! You see, I am lucky enough to share my life with Rachael. A female chocolate retriever from a mixture of American and English Lab lines.
This is Rachael as a puppy. This page is a celebration of what is for me, one of the most beautiful dogs in the world. Rachael has been a huge source of inspiration for this website, so this is a little tribute to her and a thank you for all she has taught me. We’ll hear some more about Rachael later. But first of all, we’re going to take a little trip back in time.
Where do Chocolate Labs come from?
Labrador Retrievers were recognised by the UK Kennel Club in 1903 and by the AKC in 1917. But they had been around for some years before that. The Labrador breed was developed mainly by a couple of English aristocrats in the 1800s, from dogs they had imported from North America.
Although our early Labrador Retrievers were predominantly black, some of these original dogs carried the genetic information required to produce chocolate puppies. Just as some also carried the information required to produce yellow puppies. Sadly, a hundred or more years ago, it was commonplace to ‘cull’ puppies that were not a desirable color.
Black was the ‘in’ color for labs, so this meant that mainly black dogs survived to adulthood and mainly black dogs were bred from. If mainly black dogs were bred from, you may wonder how a brown puppy was ever born! To understand that, we need to take a peep at the genes that carry the code for coat color in the Labrador retriever.
How is the Chocolate Color Inherited in Labradors?
The instructions that tell your dog what to look like, and what color to be, come packed in genes. And genes come in pairs. This is true for the gene that determines whether or not the Labrador will be brown (this gene is called b) or black (B). Every Labrador has either two genes for a black coat (BB) or two genes for a brown coat (bb) or one of each (Bb).
The color black in Labradors is dominant. That means that if a Labrador has one gene for the color brown, and one gene for the color black, the dog will be black. This is because his black gene switches off the brown one. The brown gene just sits hidden inside him doing nothing in particular, while the black gene takes control of his coat.
What about Chocolate Labs?
The poor old brown gene only gets to be in charge if it is paired with another brown gene – like this ->(bb). So for a chocolate Lab puppy to be born, he needs to have those two chocolate genes, one is not enough. However, a black Labrador can sneakily carry a brown gene (Bb) and pass it along to his children. This is how the color brown can and did remain hidden in generation after generation of black Labradors.
Chocolate Lab Coat Changing Color
You might find as your chocolate Lab grows that their color does not stay the same. Shedding chocolate Labs can appear paler as the undercoat shows through more when deep in shed. In old age their coat can also fade, especially around their face. This isn’t caused by anything genetic or concerning, and is totally normal.
Why were Chocolate Labs not Wanted?
So if there were always brown genes in our Labrador population, there have always been occasional brown puppies. All that was required to produce some chocolate Labrador Retriever puppies was for someone to mate a black dog carrying brown (Bb) with another black dog carrying brown. And hey presto, some of this litter of puppies are brown!
And of course in the days long before DNA tests,, there was no way of knowing for sure that a black dog was carrying brown, until he had made some brown puppies. By which time it was too late!
These brown Labrador puppies were not bred from and no doubt some were quietly ‘disposed of’ without a second thought. We don’t really know why the chocolate dogs were so disliked. It seems bizarre to us now, in a world where chocolate is such a popular color in dogs. But in the early 1900s only black would do.
When did Chocolate Labs become Popular?
By the 1920s and 30s a few brown or liver Labradors as they were then called were making an appearance on the shooting field. But for some years more, brown was not widely acceptable to Labrador enthusiasts. It wasn’t until the 1960s that brown Labs began to really grow in popularity. The demand for these beautiful dogs came from ordinary home owners and they much preferred the word ‘chocolate’ to describe their new companions.
That preference continues today, and we still often name our brown Labs after favorite snack bars and chocolate flavored drinks! You can however still register chocolate Labradors as ‘liver’ in color.
English Chocolate Lab
English Labs are those which were bred for Shows. The first chocolate English Show Champion Labrador Retriever was Cookridge Tango in 1964. The 1960s was a turning point in the popularity of the chocolate Lab, but interest grew slowly at first.
Gradually, the public began to demand more chocolate Lab puppies, and gradually breeders began to produce them. Over the next few decades, Chocolate Labradors became increasingly popular both in the show ring and as pets. In the shooting community, where Labradors were expected to do a job of work, the preference for black continued. This continued throughout the late 1900s, and into the present day, particularly in the UK.
American Chocolate Lab
American chocolate Labradors were bred to work, and are also known as field Labradors. The chocolate Lab has now become more established in the working community, but they are harder to find. There is a rumour going around that this is because brown Labradors are a bit stupid! But is it true? Or is the ‘Chocolate Labs are stupid’ claim, a scurrilous lie. You might also have noticed that chocolate Labs are rarely seen as seeing eye dogs. Let’s have a closer look at some of those Labrador characteristics, and find out where they come from.
Just like you and me, every dog is a product of both his environment. As well as the genes he is born with. We have seen that many chocolate Labradors come from show Labrador lines, and these bloodlines tend to have certain characteristics in common. Characteristics that are passed along from parent to puppy.
How Big Do Chocolate Labs Get?
Chocolate Lab size varies quite a bit. Show Labradors (English) are often more heavily built, and somewhat slower and physically less agile than their field bred counterparts. Some English brown Labs may reach 80 or 90lbs without being fat or overweight. Whereas American chocolate Labs are often lighter.
My Rachael, for example, weighs less than 60lbs. Most males of her build will weigh five or ten pounds more. English chocolate Labs are also more likely to have a chunky Labrador head and thick otter tail. And while some feel that the chunkiness of the skull has been taken too far in show lines, there is no denying the beauty of a classic Labrador head.
A brown Labrador is more likely to be from these show types of bloodline and are therefore more likely to share these general characteristics. But there is more. It isn’t just body shape that is inherited.
Chocolate Lab Temperament
American Labs may have a more intense retrieve drive, or urge to chase and retrieve things than their show bred cousins. They also tend to be not only physically faster and racily built, but more ‘sensitive’ and responsive to training.
American Labs are keen to please
Field bred Labs tend to be quite dependent on their handler’s approval. In short, they are desperate to please. Over many generations this biddable quality has been bred into our working Labs alongside their retrieving and hunting prowess. This has given working dogs a rather different temperament from our show stock.
Chocolate Lab Intelligence
In show dogs you may see a more robust temperament. An English chocolate Lab is often less concerned over the little ups and downs of life. It’s all a bit of fun. Nothing is taken too seriously. Many English chocolate Lab owners report that their dogs are especially playful. And I have certainly found that to be the case with Rachael. She adores soft toys and spends hours playing with her Flat Squirrel!
The more serious nature of the American chocolate Lab doesn’t necessarily mean that field bred labs are more clever. However, they may less distractible, more focused and therefore easier to train. This can certainly give the impression of a dog that is pretty smart. These dogs may also be more likely to be black.
American vs English Chocolate Lab
The important thing to remember is that these differences in ‘trainability’ if you like to call them that, are minimal. English Labs are still highly intelligent, highly trainable dogs. The differences between field and show might give you the edge in competition. However, they are not going to make any difference to your basic obedience training, or your pet’s behavior.
They are also becoming increasingly irrelevant as we switch to more modern methods of training which are much better at motivating dogs to engage in the training process. Now let’s find out why working retrievers are not usually brown.
Any color as long as it’s black!
We mentioned earlier that the color black has long been favoured by the working retriever community. Experienced, working gundog enthusiasts are less likely to buy a puppy that is not from working lines, and when they do, they are more likely to choose a black dog. Unsurprisingly this means that most working lines of Labs are predominantly black.
Black is also a great color for a hunting companion. A yellow dog really stands out in the countryside, even in poor light, so even when yellow dogs became more common, they were not so popular with the hunter. Brown dogs are better camouflaged but became more numerous much later and were embraced first by the pet and show communities.
Are Chocolate Labs Stupid?
To my knowledge, no study has ever been carried out on the differing intellectual abilities of Labrador of different colors. Everything you hear is based on personal anecdotal stories, often passed along in fun. At least to begin with! I have found my own female chocolate Labrador from mixed lines to be a lot more ‘playful’ and interested in other dogs, than my working bred Labradors generally are.
She has very intense retrieve drive, but is less naturally keen to share the outcome with anyone. She is also easily distracted and because of this she has taken me a little longer to train than my working line Labs. I’ve heard others report the same observations. But it is most unlikely that there is any distinct difference in intelligence between dogs of the same breed that happen to be a different color.
Being chocolate does not make a dog stupid
Even if there were a difference in learning ability between different colored dogs, it does not mean that one caused the other. The answer lies in the behavior and temperament of dogs from different bloodlines.
Types of chocolate Labs
The difference in trainability is in short a feature of the difference between the field bred dog and the show bred dog. Not a feature of the color of the dog. It is a coincidence that many chocolate Labradors are English in type, and many black Labs are American in type. Because of this coincidence the characteristics of the show bred Lab tend to be attributed to our brown friends. While the characteristics of the field bred Lab tend to be attributed to our black dogs.
So you can see how the myth got started. The fact is, that chocolate Labs from working lines are just as easy to train as black Labs from working lines. But you are less likely to meet a chocolate Lab from working lines at the moment. But rest assured, your chocolate friend is not stupid. With modern training methods you can easily teach him to be a well behaved and obedient dog.
Chocolate Labrador Shades
Unlike our yellow Labradors – which come in a wide range of shades, the color chocolate is pretty consistent in puppyhood. Most chocolate Labs are quite similar in color. The color of your adult chocolate Labrador Retriever boy or girl’s coat will however vary depending on whether the coat is newly grown after a moult, or is about to shed. As the old hair dies it starts to lose some of its color, and the dead hair is much paler than the glossy new coat that will soon appear.
And though some chocolate Labs are darker than others, even when taking the stage of moult into account, variations between individuals are fairly small, with one very contentious exception. The Silver Labrador.
Silver Labs Are Chocolate Labs
Silver Labradors have a gene which dilutes the color chocolate and makes it a pale, silvery shade. Some people find this very attractive, while others regard it as an abomination. There is no doubt that a hundred years ago, there was no coat dilution gene in our Labrador Retrievers. We know for sure that this gene has appeared quite recently. What we don’t know for sure, is how it got there.
The strongest theory is that the gene arrived through cross breeding a Labrador with a dog that carries the dilute coat color gene. A breed such as the Weimaraner for example. The other explanation is that the gene causing the silver coat was some kind of genetic ‘accident’ or mutation. This seems rather less likely. Kennel Clubs are currently willing to register silver Labs, despite the dispute over their ancestry, but they can only be registered as ‘chocolate’. Not as silver itself.
A bright Future for the Chocolate Lab
Throughout history, there have been a number of famous black Labradors, and we tend to associate yellow Labs with the all important role of working as assistance dogs. Bill Clinton’s chocolate Labrador Buddy was famous simply for being the president’s dog, but it is harder to find examples of chocolate Labradors who have distinguished themselves.
This is not because chocolate Lab dogs lack the qualities or abilities of black and yellow dogs, but simply because the popularity of the color is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are as we speak, plenty of chocolate Labradors serving in the military, working as assistance dogs and in the shooting field. Their story has only just begun, and as time goes on, we’ll be hearing more of their exploits.
Maybe you have a story to tell about your own chocolate friend, or maybe you are just starting out on your journey to finding a chocolate Lab to share your life. If that’s the case, read on. We have some tips for searching in the right places.
How to Find A Chocolate Lab
There are two main ways of bringing a chocolate Labrador retriever into your life. And many people will tell you that the very best way, is to rescue a dog from a shelter or dog’s home. The other way, is to buy a chocolate Lab puppy and raise him yourself. I can’t tell you which is right for your own family, though I will say that it is not as clear cut an issue as some will tell you. If you want to go the puppy route, then you’ll find my book Choosing The Perfect Puppy a helpful guide. There are pros and cons to both rescuing an older dog and raising your own puppy, I go into these in some detail in The Labrador Handbook.
It may well depend on what stage of life your family is at and on how experienced you are with dogs in general, and with Labradors in particular. You can buy both books from Amazon by following links above. If you do, The Labrador Site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated and won’t affect the cost to you! If rescuing appeals to you, and you are ready for the challenges and the many benefits of giving a dog a new lease of life, there are plenty of rescue societies that specialise in Labradors.
Rescuing a Chocolate Labrador
The first step is to make contact with your local Labrador Rescue. Most rescues don’t rehome dogs outside their own ‘catchment area’. Rescuing can be a wonderful and fulfilling way of bringing a lovely brown retriever into your life, so do consider it thoroughly. You can find lots more information here: Is a rescue Labrador right for you and here The right dog for you- Puppy or Rescue?
If now is not the right time for you to rescue an older dog. Or if you are getting a Labrador for a special purpose – as a hunting companion for example – you may be better off with a new puppy. Let’s see how that works
Buying a Chocolate Lab Puppy
Chocolate Labrador puppies are ready to go to their permanent homes at around eight weeks old. If someone wants to sell you a puppy much younger than that, alarm bells should be ringing. You also need to make sure you buy your puppy from the right place.
This means choosing the right breeder. And avoiding puppy mills and pet stores. If you want a puppy for hunting, you need to go to a breeder that specialises in field-bred dogs. If you want to get involved in the world of showing, you need to go to a breeder that breeds Labradors for the show ring. It is possible to train a show dog for work, though he or she is unlikely to get far in high level field competitions. It is not normally possible to succeed in the show ring with a field bred dog. Keep this in mind.
Chocolate Labrador Puppy Health
Labradors of all colors suffer from inherited disorders. Please, please make sure your puppy is from health tested parents – it may all end in tears if you omit this important step. Their parents should have good hip scores, good elbow scores, clear eye tests and be PRA clear too. If your puppy’s parents are in good health, you increase the odds of having a healthy puppy. But does picking a chocolate Lab puppy set you off on the wrong foot in terms of health from the start?
Are Chocolate Labs Unhealthy?
In 2018 a study hit the headlines hard, and had a lot of chocolate Lab owners in a panic. Their research suggested that there is a link between Lab color and not just health, but lifespan too. Over 33,000 Labs were studies, with 23.8% of them chocolate. Giving a good sample size.
Chocolate Labs in the study were more likely to have dermatitis, which matches with some colloquial findings of owners of silver Labs with skin problems. Ear problems are also more common, and this is in fact something Rachael has even suffered with in the past. Gastrointestinal issues were more common with chocolate Labradors too.
Chocolate Labradors live on average for just 10.7 years, where yellow and black Labs come out at 12.1 years. At least according to this study. Interestingly, they were least likely to have degenerative joint disease or dental problems.
Avoiding Health Problems in Chocolate Labs
Health testing is important for any puppy buyer. It reduces the chances of your pup becoming ill. But it is also important to look at the coefficient of inbreeding. Chocolate Labs get their color from a recessive gene. This means that to ensure you have a litter of chocolate puppies you need to breed from two chocolate parents. This limits your options further than the average breeder who isn’t interested in the color of their puppies. Reducing gene pools will always increase health problems.
Finding a puppy with a very low coefficient of inbreeding will help you to avoid some of these problems. In addition to health testing, of course. It would also be sensible to avoid a chocolate Lab puppy with parents with a history of ear or skin problems.
You can find out more about health issues in Labradors in this article: Health screening for Labrador Diseases. And there is lots of information on finding a good breeder here: Labrador breeders – how to find a good one
Training and Exercising your Chocolate Labrador
My advice for training and exercising your chocolate Labrador is to figure out what type of lines your dog is from and adjust your expectations accordingly. Then to follow a good positive reinforcement training programme. Make sure you exercise his mind as well as his body. Even if you never intend to take him hunting, he still needs a job to do, retrieves to complete, toys to find, streams to cross and so on.
Training him isn’t just necessary, it will be a whole lot of fun. If your dog is from show lines, he too needs training and plenty of exercise, but he may also need plenty of play. Toys and games, and other dogs to interact with.
Training my Chocolate Lab
Even at seven years old, Rachael still loves to play with other dogs and with people. She is hugely enthusiastic about meeting people (and dogs) and prone to be over-friendly. Whilst we certainly don’t want an aggressive or unfriendly working dog, this extra-friendliness makes the chocolate Lab dog more prone to distraction by humans and other dogs.
I have therefore had to spend a bit more time ‘proofing’ basic obedience than I would with one of my yellow or black American Labs. And I have to make a special effort to ensure that she is not allowed to interact with visitors until she is sitting calmly. On the plus side, I have had to spend less time socialising Rachael than I would with a field bred lab. As she takes everything in her stride.
Pay extra attention to proofing your English chocolate Lab’s obedience in the presence of people and other dogs. You may find she is intensely friendly and rather distractible, so this aspect of his education is important.
Caring for an old Chocolate Lab
As the years pass by, we leave behind one set of challenges and they are replaced by new ones. Failing eyesight, stiff joints, and declining hearing. However, these senior years can still be happy and fun filled for many dogs, especially if you keep your dog slim.
If your chocolate friend is quite heavily built as many chocolates are, you need to be extra careful to keep an eye on his weight as he ages. More body weight means more stress and strain on joints, this can aggravate problems like arthritis in older dogs. I personally think that elderly chocolate Labradors are particularly beautiful, with their greying muzzles and kind eyes. Of course, you will want to make your old friend as comfortable as you can.
I’d love to hear about your own chocolate Lab, so do drop your story in the comments box below. Tell us what is so special about your chocolate Labrador and why you think they are the best.
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