The English Lab has to be one of the most beautiful dogs in the world.
And with an endearing temperament to go with those good looks, the English Labrador must come close to perfection on four legs.
The Appeal of the English Labrador
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 gun dog trainers, I’ve 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 explore some of the differences between the American and the English Lab. I also share some of my personal experience living with and training both these amazing types of Labrador Retriever.
Then I’ll be delving into every aspect of finding and owning your first English Labrador. And, of course, sharing some of my favorite pictures of English Labs with you.
If you’re unsure and haven’t taken the plunge yet into life with one of these beautiful dogs, don’t worry. I’ll help you decide if this is the right dog for you.
We’ll start by examining the split that has arisen in the Labrador Retriever breed and look at how English labs differ from American labs.
Then we’ll discuss the roles that English Labs play, in our lives and our society. That should show us 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 Labs.
One branch of Labradors has been developed into a strain of amazing family pets. 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 US.
Why Did Labradors Split into English and American Labs
Dogs typically produce a litter each year. As such, it doesn’t take long for the effects of selective breeding to show.
In the second half of the twentieth century, exhibiting dogs became increasingly popular. So for the first time, multiple Labrador generations never required to work as retrievers, were bred.
But over time when dogs are bred for the show ring, exaggerations in type begin to creep in. A certain look becomes fashionable 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 US and the UK, the field trial community is the main breeding pool for Labradors. Here, breeders’ dogs compete for the coveted title of Field Trial Champion. Such a title enables the breeder to earn stud fees from their champion dogs.
In field trials, speed and drive are rewarded, less than the steadiness and endurance of old. Overall, dogs are often rewarded for special skills—appearance counts for little. Thus our American labs were selected for their retrieving and marking skills and for their athleticism and speed. Little consideration was given to their appearance.
The split happened 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. You can see examples of dogs like this moderate black English Lab, in American Labs lines too.
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.
Most English Labs living in the US are as American as their American Lab cousins. It’s simply that the breed was divided into these types of Lab, based on their roles as either pets or hunting companions.
Both strains were named differently depending on where you live. 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.
Where Did English Labs Come From?
The Labrador breed was established in Newfoundland by pioneering English settlers. These 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 breeders emerged, and with them, the two different strains of dog.
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.
But there are some distinguishing features of the English Lab to tell him apart from his working bred relatives.
Two very classic features are his handsome chiseled 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”—that’s 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 continues as we leave the head of this beautiful dog down 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.
In contrast, the American Lab, when viewed from the front, is often a more narrow dog with a leaner appearance. He 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.
In some cases, this is not just an ‘impression’ and some 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. It’s usually something that enhances the appearance of a Labrador.
In some cases, the American Lab seems to have dispensed with the otter tail altogether. Some possess a more whippy appendage with a curve or upward sweep rather than the low carriage of their show bred cousins.
These then are the key features of the English Lab distinguishing him 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 seem slightly odd that the working dog should have lost his working coat. But it shouldn’t. You’ll realize why when we consider where the breeding pool of American Labs comes from. We’ll look at that in a moment. But now, let’s talk weight.
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 puppyhood 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. However, the English Lab may in some cases be less energetic and driven outdoors. He isn’t rushing here there and everywhere looking for something to hunt. And in some respects, this may make him easier to control.
On the other hand, the English Lab may also be more playful and distractible. He may be more inclined to play with other dogs than to fetch a ball for you. In some ways, this can make him harder to control.
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 from training and working, they can make relaxing companions at home.
However, if these mental and physical requirements are not fully met, they can be restless and even destructive housemates.
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.
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. On the right, however, 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.
English Labradors: All Grown Up
Here they are all grown up and having a joke at my expense!
The differences between the characters of these two dogs are far more distinctive than the apparent differences.
The yellow Lab, Tess has the focus and sensitivity 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. I’ve noticed 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. Compared with Tess, it is easy to see that she struggles to “switch off.” And while she’s a very keen retriever, it hasn’t been as easy to channel that drive in a useful way.
Of course, you expect 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.
English Lab Colors
It is common knowledge that 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 reason for the silver color is a gene that dilutes the chocolate coat. Interestingly, the AKC registers silver labs as “chocolate.”
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). This is simply because the color is not recognized in the show ring.
Grooming English Labs
Thankfully, English Labs are not high maintenance where grooming is concerned. These active dogs will get themselves in anything from dirt to mud. But with their nearly dirt-resistant coat, you needn’t worry too much.
For Labs, you can bathe them when they’re smelly or have got themselves into a murky play situation. But overall, it’s best to bathe them at least once in three months. You can also use a grooming brush to make that lovely coat shine. They’ll thank you for the massage!
English Labs, like all Labs, are shedding pros. So you’ll need a Furminator to stay sane during molting season. We have an entire post on grooming your fur baby right here: Grooming Labs.
Is There a Different Breed Standard for English Labs?
As far as the breed standard is concerned, there is only one Labrador Retriever. So 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.
In reality, however, breed standards are open to interpretation. And because of that, there have been changes on both sides of the divide. Show dogs have become more heavily built, whereas working dogs have become more “racy.”
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.
Some other health troubles may affect English Labs and Labs in general. But keep in mind that these are things you can prevent by regular medical check-ups. Or at the very least caught early enough. No breed is free from medical issues, and Labs are some of the best breed you can find.
The most common health issues with English Labradors include:
- Joint issues: particularly hip dysplasia and elbow problems.
- Eye troubles: They also are known to suffer with cataracts and issues with their retinas.
- Cancer: This is a big one for Labradors in general.
- Diabetes: Labradors can develop diabetes, but with proper care can live long healthy lives.
You can learn more about Labrador health and lifespan in this linked post. And find out which medical checkups are helpful for Labradors. Let’s discuss another health issue especially for show line dogs: obesity.
Obesity in English Labradors – How Chubby Can You Go?
There is evidence that some Labradors are more prone to obesity than some other breeds. However, whether or not this tendency is expressed in your dog, will depend entirely on you. The English Lab community can be accepting of higher weight levels. Basically, it’s easier to let your dog get a bit chubby if your friend’s dogs are all overweight.
However, studies have shown that avoiding obesity in your Lab is the single most important thing to keep your dog well and give him a long and happy life.
Training Your English Lab
The English Labrador has a reputation of being a highly trainable dog. Labradors are frequently used as service dogs and the Lab deserves their reputation as a biddable and obedient dog.
That does not mean that English Lab owners don’t have any problems. So don’t be surprised if you need some training support at times.
In particular, Labs can be challenging as puppies during the biting phase, and when ‘teenagers’ due to their strength, energy, and determination to make friends with every living soul they meet.
It’s important to use modern force-free training methods if you want to get the best from your English Labrador
You’ll need a good grounding in basic training skills, and if this is your first time, you might enjoy my Foundations Skills course.
I’ve also set up regular tips by email which will answer many of your training questions.
Is an English Lab the Right Dog for Me?
Both Labrador types share many features. For one, they are big, messy, powerful, and bouncy when young.
And like all Labs they are very sociable and don’t much like being left alone for hours. So if you have a full time job, do check out our advice on raising a puppy when you work
However, before you think about what type of Labrador is right for you, there’s something to keep in mind. Consider 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, then you can decide 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.
Some breeders are 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. For active people who intend to walk and train their dog extensively, either American or English Labs will suit you.
If you love training dogs to a high standard or intend to use your dog as a hunting companion, perhaps reconsider. You are likely to find an English Labrador a little more frustrating to train. You may find he lacks the drive, persistence, and athletic ability that you need.
English Lab Breeders
For a classic English Lab with the stocky appearance and otter tail, go to a breeder who specializes in English lines. While some American Labs are very handsome, you won’t find the really thickset, stockier dogs in working kennels.
So look for breeders who exhibit their dogs in the show ring. Or at least, who 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). By contrast, 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 off on the right path.
The Future of the English Lab
Many people in the working retriever community are not overly concerned with the appearance of their dogs. But some others would like to see Labrador with more classic English Lab looks, working in the field. Then, some like me have also dabbled with field training English Labs or English/American mixes. But without any high-level success in trials.
Similarly, a few within the English Lab show community train their dogs to work in the shooting field. Honestly, though, they are few and far between.
So it truly appears that the split is here to stay. It also seems 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.
English Labradors are still a largely unspoiled breed. Let’s hope it stays that way. May the English Lab retain his wonderful zest for life, his love of retrieving, and of wallowing in mud.
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 bookstores.
- WebMD. Flowers, A., DVM. Diabetic Dog: How to Manage His Diet.
- The Journal of Nutrition. Hawthorne, A. J. et al. Body Weight Changes During Growth in Puppies of Different Breeds (2014).
- The Journal of Nutrition. Sallander, M. H. et al. Diet, Exercise, and Weight as Risk Factors in Hip Dysplasia and Elbow Arthrosis in Labrador Retrievers (2006)
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Smith, G. K. VMD et al. Evaluation of risk factors for degenerative joint disease associated with hip dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Rottweilers (2001).
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