English Lab – Your Guide To The English Labrador Retriever

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The English Lab has to be one of the most beautiful dogs in the world.

And with an amazing temperament to go with those good looks, the English Labrador must come close to perfection on four legs.

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 gundog trainers I have 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 wanted to explore some of the differences between the American and the English Lab

And to share some of my personal experience in living with and training both these amazing types of Labrador Retriever.

I’ll be delving into every aspect of finding and owning your first English Labrador and sharing some of my favorite pictures of English Labs with you.

You can comment on the article below, or post photos of your own English Lab on the forum or on our Facebook page.

We’d love to see your dogs.

If you haven’t taken the plunge yet into life with one of these beautiful dogs, 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

We’ll discuss the roles that English Labs play, in our lives and our society, and why they are so loved and popular.

And we’ll look at the future of the breed and at how suitable these dogs are for different types of family and for different family situations.

English Vs American Labs

Around the world, the Labrador Retriever has been split into two very different types of Lab.

One branch of Labradors, has been developed into a strain of amazing family pets, while 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 USA.

This article focuses mainly on one side of that split, on the English Lab. But we will refer to our American Labs as we go.

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 USA are as American, as their American Lab cousins.

It’s simply that as the breed became divided into these two separate types of Lab, based on their roles as either pets or hunting companions

The two strains of Lab were given different names in the USA, from the names that they have been given in the UK

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.

A complete guide to English Labs, their temperament and characteristics with lots of lovely photosThe 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.

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.

Let’s take a look first at the physical differences between the two types of Lab

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 features of the English Lab that are important in distinguishing him from his working bred relatives.

Two very classic features are his handsome chiselled 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’ – thats 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

This English Labrador will have a broader head than is American Lab friends.

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 may continue as we leave the head of this beautiful dog and pass along his body 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.

The American Lab when viewed from the front is often a more narrow dog.

He has a leaner appearance and 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.

But in some cases these 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, and something that always enhances the appearance of a Labrador.

In some cases, the American Lab seems to have dispensed with the otter tail altogether, and has a rather more whippy appendage with a curve or upward sweep rather than the low carriage of his show bred cousins.

These then are the key features of the English Lab that set him apart 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.

English Labs have a thick warm double coat
English Labs have a thick warm double coat

Not all American Labs have the double coat that you find on Labs in the show ring.

It may seems slightly odd that the working dog should have lost his working coat, until you consider where the breeding pool of American Labs comes from – we’ll look at that in a moment

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 puppy hood 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.

Provided that he is not ‘fat’ that doesn’t matter. And you can find out whether or not your dog is fat rather than just ‘big’ using this guide.

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, but the English Lab may in some cases be less energetic and driven outdoors. In some respects this may make him easier to control.

That’s because he isn’t rushing here there and everywhere looking for something to hunt.

Two gorgeous English Labrador dogs in a field. On the other hand, the English Lab may also be more playful and distractible. In some respects this can make him harder to control as he may be more inclined to play with other dogs than to fetch a ball for you

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 that comes from training and working, they can make very relaxing companions at home.

However, if the mental and physical requirements of the American Lab are not fully met, he can be a restless and destructive housemate.

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.

English Lab colors

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 silver color is caused by a gene that dilutes the chocolate coat and is registered as chocolate by the AKC.

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) simply because the color is not recognised in the show ring.

And English Labs are often bred by dog showing enthusiasts, most of whom are opposed to the registration of silver dogs.

Where did English Labs come from?

The Labrador breed was established in Newfoundland by pioneering English 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 breeder emerged, and with them, the two different strains of dog.

Is there a different breed standard for English Labs?

As far as the breed standard is concerned, there is only one Labrador Retriever, and 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.

However, breed standards are open to interpretations and because of that, there have been changes on both sides of the divide. With show dogs becoming more heavily built as working dogs have become more ‘racy’.

And with show dog heads becoming bigger with looser skin, while working dogs have lost their wonderful otter tails, and in some cases their double coats too.

Why did Labradors split into English and American Labs

As dogs are physically capable of producing a litter each year, it doesn’t take long for the effects of selective breeding to begin to take place.

Exhibiting dogs became increasingly popular in the second half of the twentieth century, and for the first time, generation after generation of Labradors that were never required to work as retrievers, were bred.

Over time, when dogs are bred for the show ring, exaggerations in type often creep in.

A certain look becomes fasionable 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 USA and the UK, the main breeding pool for Labradors is found in the field trial community. Where breeders are competing their dogs for the coveted title of Field Trial Champion.

Such a title enables the breeder to earn stud fees from their champions dogs.

Field trials are competitions where speed and drive are rewarded, less than the steadiness and endurance of old. These are specialised competitions, where dogs are rewarded for special skills and where appearance counts for little.

Thus our American labs were selected for their retrieving and marking skills and for their athleticism and speed, without much consideration for their appearance.

The split took place 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.  And you can see examples of dogs similar to this moderate black English Lab, in American Labs lines too.

This English Lab has a broad body and head shape.But it has now been many years since we have seen a dual champion Labrador (one who was able to win as a show champion and also as a champion in the field)

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

No specific health benefits or disadvantages to buying an English type Lab have been identified. But there is believed to be a greater tendency towards obesity in show line dogs.

This isn’t because these dogs inherit an obesity gene, or are lazy, but is more likely to be a result of over-feeding due to an acceptance of higher weight levels within the English Lab community.

It’s harder to keep your dog slim, if your friend’s dogs are all overweight. But it is worth doing as studies have shown that avoiding obesity in your Lab is the single most important thing you can do to keep your dog well and to give him a long and happy life.

Is an English Lab the right dog for me?

Both types of Labrador share many features in common. They are big, powerful, bouncy when young, and messy dogs.

Before you think about what type of Labrador is right for you, have a think about 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, you’ll need to consider 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.

An English Lab can make a great family pet
English Labs make great family pets

There are breeders 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. If you are an active person who intends to walk and train their dog extensively, then either and American or an English Lab will suit you.

If you love training dogs to a high standard or intend to use your dog as a hunting companion, you are likely to find an English Lab a little more frustrating to train and may find he lacks the drive, persistence, and athletic ability that you need.

Having said that, here in the UK, many English Labs do work part-time as hunting companions and do a pretty good job.

English Lab breeders

If you are looking for a classic English Lab with the chunky stocky appearance and otter tail, you will need to go to a breeder who specialises in English lines

There are some very handsome American Labs but you won’t find the really thickset, stockier dogs in a working kennels.

So you need to be looking at breeders who exhibit their dogs in the show ring, or who at least 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)  whereas 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 of on the right path.

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

English vs American Lab puppies. There are some strong differences between the two types. The puppy on the left is 3/4 English Lab and 1/4 American Lab, the puppy on the right 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

Our English Lab and American Lab have very different appearances. Here they are all grown up and having a joke at my expense!

The differences between the characters of these two dogs is far most distinctive than the differences between the in appearance.

The yellow Lab Tess has the focus and sensitivity I have found very 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. 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 than Tess because she struggles to ‘switch off’. And while she is a very keen retriever, it hasn’t been as easy to channel that drive in a useful way.

Of course, you get 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.

The future of the English Lab

There are many people in the working retriever community who are not overly concerned with the appearance of their dogs.

But there are others who would like to see Labrador with more classic English Lab looks, working in the field.

There are some like me who have dabbled with field training English Labs or English/American mixes. But none with any high level success in trials.

In the same way, there are a few within the English Lab show community that train their dogs to work in the shooting field, but to be honest, they are few and far between.

The Labrador HandbookSo it seems as though the split is here to stay.

And 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.

This is still a largely unspoiled breed.

Let’s hope it stays that way, and that the English Lab will retain his love of retrieving, of wallowing in mud, and his wonderful zest for life

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 books stores.

 

23 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Pippa

    The section comparing Labs shows photographs of two puppies and then the dogs grown up. Well Sam, my Lab is a look-a-like for your American Lab and in Scotland we call this type of Lab a Red Fox Labrador because of its colour. Loved the article and it helped me to understand my dog as he is a fantastic swimmer and loves being in the sea and has oodles of energy which I have to work off each day.

    Sybil Simpson

  2. I have a charcoal Lab who exhibits all of the traits of an English Lab, with the exception of shorter legs – but that is most likely due to early neutering, and late closure of the growth plates. His coat is thick & luxurious, his head is huge and blocky with a pronounced stop, and he has been a mellow, laid back dog since the day we got him, at 12 weeks old. Having had an American (and being the grandma of an American), he is much better suited to our more laid back lifestyle.

  3. Good article overall. Within the U.K. there are different ways of defining our labs one, as you have mentioned, is “show pedigree” & “field trials pedigree” relating to your English & American types. We also, less often & falling out of use to a degree, define them as “Windsor” & “Sandringham” respectively recognising the royal urban & county residences at which labs were once bred for the home/show ring or the shooting field/field trials uses.

  4. Great read. I have an almost 13 year old English chocolate, she’s a working dog. We are one of the teams at Brighton Ski Resort in Utah, she is trained to sniff out avalanche victims in order to effect a quick rescue of someone buried in the snow. Somehow, her drive is exactly not that of a show dog, but lucky for her I found her a job where she has been able to utilize her tremendous energy and determination for the past ten years. By all indications right now, she’s ready for another season on the mountain this coming winter. Here’s a link to her Facebook group, she’s been a great mentor to the younger dogs who have joined the team over the years. https://www.facebook.com/groups/202398302481/

  5. My Riley Lab is more white than yellow and he is a mix of the two I think. His face is more like an American Lab but he is shorter than most labs and has a think mane around his neck and a wavy fur line down his back, much softer than the average wiry Labs I see. He is tge best dog I have ever had. He doesn’t run away. He is loyal, fun to p k at fetch with his tennis ball and especially loves to fetch in water. When he goes to the Lake first thin he does is run down and down in the the water. So fun to train and great respect for my cat.

  6. What a fantastic article ad I really appreciate all the help you provide to us who are so blessed to share our lives with a Lab … it truly is the most heart warming experience. My Molly is a black English Lab – she is 18 months old and a complete joy to be with – loving, caring, kind and understands so well what is going on for you. You couldn’t want for a better companion and true and devoted friend. I totally agree with the earlier comment that I would give up my home rather than part with my best friend Moll. One issue for the English Labs is that people who clearly don’t know the difference between the American and English Labs call her “fat” because she is a solid frame with a robust strong chest – we follow a strict diet and exercise regime to make sure her weight is under control as we know she could easily put on weight but she will always be a solid frame and cuddly and I adore her teddy bear looks. What is so impressive about her is that she seems to understand that she needs to cooperate on the food and exercise side of things and even though she would happily eat more and sometimes doesn’t feel like a workout and would rather lie comfy in her bed for a few hours more, she is always eager to please us and knows we are always motivated by her best interests. These dogs are truly the most wonderful and intuitive creatures – if you are in search of happiness and reasons to smile constantly, I thoroughly recommend them.
    Robyn Morgan, Canberra, Australia

  7. Not sure where the idea that to English people the term English or American Lab simply means the Country they were born in comes from but it’s completely off the mark. Ask in every UK Lab Facebook community and you’ll get a very different answer.

    Though we tend to use the terms of Show or Working Stock to identify the two strains of Lab here in the U.K. we would know which term of American and English Lab refers to which.

    I’m a proud owner of a typical Show/English Chocolate Labrador and they make the very best companion you could ever want. She adores retrieving, although sadly being born with congenital hip dysplasia we have to limit her exercise. She has a very playful and loving disposition. She also wants to please constantly.

    We have never had any problems with her destroying furniture etc. Nor has she ever counter surfed or has any stolen food (very unusual for a Labrador as they are very food orientated) – I’ve tested her over and over with tasty food left where she can get it but she has never taken it – I’ve not even commanded her to leave it .. she just doesn’t touch it.

    She does tend to carry more weight than a working stock/American Lab but that is partly down to not being able to exercise as much as she should. Her food is cut accordingly but she’s still prone to the extra weight. In fact we took part in a study being done at Cambridge University looking at the traits in Labradors for their hunger, greed etc. You can read about this on the Go Dogs website. Her appearance with a deeper chest also makes her look bigger than she actually is.

    I think as long as you choose the correct ‘strain’ to suit your lifestyle, you really can’t go past a Labrador for a work companion or a much loved family pet.

  8. I have an English lab I received from a friend who is a breeder. His father is a two time Chsmpion, but that doesn’t matter to me. He is beautiful, loving and I would give you my house before I gave you my dog. I’ve loved every dog I’ve ever had, but this one is my favorite. I am close to retirement and I am looking forward to spending more time at the lake and in the woods with my pal. And yes, my wife of 32 years loves him more than she loves me. I would love to post a picture if I could figure out how.

  9. My entire life changed when we welcomed Yukon Cornelius, our English lab, into our family. He is just fabulous although a bit too chunky. I do not want to risk his health. Can you suggest the appropriate amount of food daily? He is two years old now and eats pure vita. He’s always starving he thinks.

  10. I have one Lab from a long line of working labs, and is all things a working lab should not be, does not retrieve, lazy and afraid of water ! My chocolate who looks like a show dog( English type) is a great retriever, loves water and is very focused. Goes to show you can not always count on what you are getting. They are both great dogs.

  11. A very interesting article. I have three wonderful black labs…two males and a female, 10, 8 and 4 years. One thing I have never really got an answer to is the difference you’ll often find in the labrador coats. My 3 all have the same rather quite thick and wiry coat…a classic double coat. However, I have friends whose labs have quite a fine, smooth coat. Is this something to do with the English/American heritage? I would really like to know.

    • I just read that English have a thicker and more “wirey” coat. My chocolate English even had some wave down her back, where the American coat looks slimmer

  12. Hi, I wish you wouldn’t call Labs English or American, there is no such thing. We have both types over here in the UK, what do you think we call them, English and English? it doesn’t make sense.
    There are two types, show or field, the show being the heavier stocky build favoured in the show ring and the field which is lighter in build with a more energetic temperament more suited to working in the field.
    You make it sound as though the “American” type is a distinct variant developed in America but as I said earlier we have both types here as has the rest of the world. My lab is the field type out of working stock with many FTCH’s in her line whose parents are owned by two game keepers. She is slight with slender legs, a narrowish face and very energetic, does that make her American?
    Sorry for the rant but the internet is global and your articles get read outside the good old US of A.

    • Perhaps you missed this part of the article Alan?

      “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 USA are as American, as their American Lab cousins.

      It’s simply that as the breed became divided into these two separate types of Lab, based on their roles as either pets or hunting companions

      The two strains of Lab were given different names in the USA, from the names that they have been given in the UK

      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.”

      • I had, until recently, both types. (Our beloved Ashenglen Megan’s Gold died last year, she was a classic show girl in looks but was also a good retriever. Our black lab, Kenmilto Mystical Missouri, is a gun-shy field girl who is a tracker, pointer but won’t retrieve)

        In the UK we tend to refer to them as having a “show” or “field trials” pedigree. Some, now very few, lab lovers use an older classification with the show dogs being “Windsor” and the field dogs being “Sandringham” bred; this as a reflection of the royal residences in town and country settings respectively.

  13. Hi! My Chocolate lab is possibly mixed with a American Pitt. We haven’t got a blood test yet but she’s now 1 year and 4 months and she’s very hyper, gets into everything, inquisitive, retriever, barker and so much more. Our main problem is the barking. She barks at least 50-70 times a day (at the mailman, ppl outside, cars coming in the neighborhood, sounds in general). She also is very smart, but too smart. She’s trained not to come up stairs, so she gets on my couch at night because she’s not allowed upstairs so when I rush downstairs every morning she gets off really quick like she wasn’t on there with her nose down. Kind of like she’s a spiteful doggy. Another example she’s trained where she barks when she wants to go outside but I’m trying to limit her times going out one day and the next morning she got into some items that’s been sitting in the same position for months and shreds to pieces. Also she’s a big humper, is this normal for a female dog? She’s very good with all ages of kids they play hiding go seek with her and she actually finds them lol. One more bad trait about Coco is she goes in the trash and eats everything, she has a hard gut! She doesn’t eat her food she rather starve then eat her food. This is our first Labrador and she’s a tough cookie compared to other breeds we’ve had in the past! We need help! The barking is my main issue!

  14. Hi Pippa, We have an American lab, Buster & an English lab named Chance. They fit your descriptions perfectly. They are adorable and we are hooked on the breed! The tough part is which color to choose. We have enjoyed our yellow, black and brown labs. They are so beautiful. Each trait is appreciated. Everyone loves watching the sporting ability of the American, he is an athlete! Our English is also quite athletic, but he would rather interact with the ball thrower and the American is mostly focused on the achievement of the ball.

    Really enjoy your articles and insights! Thank you❤️

  15. Very good article! I have a lab who is half English and half American. She is got more of the classic American feature. She’s a runner and very confident!

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