What The Labrador Breed Standard Is Really Telling You

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labrador breed standard

The Labrador breed standard specifies the ideal appearance of a pedigree Labrador Retriever from head to tail.

Labrador breed standards are set by national kennel clubs, which means they can vary in small details from country to country.

The breed standard is very exacting, so lots of Labradors won’t meet every detail of it perfectly. But that’s ok.

The Labrador Breed Standard

This page is all about who sets the Labrador breed standard, why we have breed specifications and how they vary between different countries.

We’ll examine the “perfect” Labrador appearance, and ask whether it matters if your Labrador looks a bit different.

You can use this menu to find the answer to specific questions, or scroll through to read the whole article.

We will also ask whether the breed standard has been good for Labradors as a whole, or not.

What Is A Breed Standard?

A breed standard is a set of criteria or specifications that describe a pedigree dog of a particular breed.

labrador breed standard

Regardless of which breed it’s about, a breed standard includes:

  • A note of the group to which the dog belongs, which in the case of Labradors is the gundog group. Other groups include toy, utility, pastoral, working and hound dogs.
  • A summary of the breed’s general appearance, characteristics and temperament.
  • Specific points regarding anatomy and conformation (shape). These details cover everything from the shape and set of a dog’s skull, to their facial features, body, legs and tail.
  • Requirements for the dog’s gait – how well and freely the dog moves around.
  • Rules about coat texture and colour.
  • The ideal size of an adult dog.

These criteria form the ideal against which dogs are judged if they are entered into shows.

They’re a big deal, and shape generation upon generation of breeding decisions. So who came up with them?

Who Decides The Labrador Breed Standard?

The breed standards for Labrador Retrievers and for all other breeds of pedigree dog are set by national kennel clubs.

Examples of kennel clubs are

  • the American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club in the U.S.
  • and the Kennel Club and Irish Kennel Club in Britain
  • the Canadian Kennel Club
  • and the Australian National Kennel Council.

What Is A Kennel Club?

A kennel club is a charitable organization run by a committee.

Kennel clubs exist to promote the mission or objectives of their members, and also to represent the breeders of pedigree dogs and their interests.

What should a Labrador really look like, check out the breed standard on the Labrador Site

Each country has their own kennel club. And although their breed standards will be similar, they are not exactly the same for every breed.

The Kennel Club

The UK Kennel Club is simply known as The Kennel Club.

It was founded in 1873 by thirteen men who wanted a consistent set of rules for showing and trialling their dogs.

In 1939 they acquired the famous Crufts dog show as their flagship event.

Their objectives are far reaching, but they include

“To promote in every way the general improvement of dogs… [and] the classification of breeds and their registration… [and] the approval of [show] judges”

The American Kennel Club

The American Kennel Club (AKC) was founded in 1884, shortly after the British Kennel Club.

Their mission statement is short and clear:

“To advance the study, breeding, exhibiting, running and maintenance of purebred dogs.”

This is supported by some core values, including “advancing the sport of the purebred dog [and] maintaining the integrity of our Registry”.

The ANKC

The Australian kennel club is the Australian National Kennel Council, or ANKC.

It was formed quite a while after the UK and US kennel clubs. Members first met in 1949, and formally associated under the ANKC title from 1958.

The first line of their mission statement is to

“promote excellence in breeding, showing, trialling, obedience and other canine related activities and the ownership of temperamentally and physically sound pure bred dogs”

So as you can see, a common agenda of all kennel clubs is to pursue and preserve ideal forms of purebred dogs.

But who are these people, who get to decree whether our Labrador is “correct” or not?

Who Runs The Kennel Clubs?

Kennel clubs are made up of committees and working parties.

The Kennel Club, AKC and ANKC all have a committee with the sole job of reviewing and maintaining breed standards.

The members of breed standard committees are people who have an interest in continuing purebred dog lineages.

They are usually heavily involved in exhibiting and breeding dogs too.

Most breed standard committees also include a specialist canine vet.

Setting The Labrador Retriever Breed Standard

Breed standard committees agree the wording of breed standards on behalf of their kennel club, based on what they believe is the correct set of characteristics for each dog.

And it is certainly an important job, because the breed standard has huge influence over breeders.

Decisions made about the breed standard can affect the appearance, capabilities and even health of our purebred dogs.

But most of our breed standards were written a long time ago, and have changed remarkably little since.

The Kennel Club and the ANKC both republished their breed standards for the Labrador Retriever in 2018.

But the current AKC Labrador breed standard has been effective since 1994!

What Are Labrador Breed Standards For?

So why have these specifications for the perfect Labrador Retriever? What is their purpose?

The first Lab breed standards were intended to protect the Labrador’s qualities as an exceptional working gun dog.

They were laid out by members of the shooting community, and fitness for purpose was top priority.

Nowadays, kennel clubs are much more heavily influenced by the show community.

Which means the purpose of modern breed standards has shifted too.

Now they help show judges give awards to dogs that most closely match the concept of an ideal Lab.

And they give Labrador breeders outcomes to aspire to when making breeding decisions.

What Does The Ideal Labrador Look Like?

“labrador

People often asked me how tall a Labrador is supposed to be or how much a Labrador should weigh, and we do look at these issues in our articles on growth and feeding.

However, breed standards describe almost every other physical attribute of the perfect Labrador too.

So let’s look at those next.

Labrador Breed Standard USA

The AKC’s standard opens with a great description of the Labrador as a working gundog and all round performer:

“The Labrador Retriever is a strongly built, medium-sized, short-coupled,
dog possessing a sound, athletic, well-balanced conformation that enables it to function as a retrieving gun dog; the substance and soundness to hunt waterfowl or upland game for long hours under difficult conditions; the character and quality to win in the show ring; and the temperament to be a family companion”

It goes on to describe Labs’ broad skulls, otter tails and kindly eyes.

The general description closes by stating that the Labrador is bred primarily as a working gun dog.

This is not really true any longer, and a sign of the AKC standard showing its age.

The vast majority of modern Labradors are now bred as pets, service dogs, or for the show ring.

Height:

  • 22 1/2 inches to 24 1/2 inches for a male
  • 21 1/2 inches to 23 1/2 inches for a female

Weight in working condition:

  • 65 to 80lbs
  • 55 to 70lbs

Color:

  • Black
  • Yellow
  • Chocolate

Yellow can vary from light cream to fox red. Any other color or mismark disqualifies a dog from the show ring, but it can still be entered on the AKC register.

For example mismarked dogs, like a black Lab with a white patch or tan markings, can still be registered as long as they’re born from pedigree parents.

And controversially, so can silver, charcoal, and champagne Labradors.

Incidentally, I love the AKC’s repeated emphasis on the Labrador’s role as a gun dog.

But some people believe this emphasis is not being sufficiently reflected by the judges’ choices in modern show rings.

We’ll look at that more in a moment.

You can download the current full AKC Labrador Retriever breed standard from the AKC website in a four page pdf document.

Labrador Breed Standard UK

Moving on to UK Labs next.

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The Kennel Club describes the Labrador as

“Strongly built, short-coupled, very active; broad in skull; broad and deep through chest and ribs; broad and strong over loins and hindquarters.”

Incidentally, for anyone beginning to wonder what short-coupled means, it means having a short gap between the last rib, and the beginning of the hind legs.

The Kennel Club also refer to the Lab’s “intelligence, good biddable temper, agility, excellent nose, soft mouth and love of water.”

These are some of the attributes which make the Labrador such a superb working gundog.

Another specification mentioned by the Kennel Club (and again, sadly overlooked in some successful show dogs) is that the Labrador should not have excessive body weight or excessive substance.

Height:

The UK height guidelines are slightly less tall than for dogs in the USA.

  • 22 to 22 1/2 inches for a male
  • 21 1/2 to 22 inches for a female

Weight is not specified in the breed standard, though it does say

“Chest of good width and depth, with well sprung barrel ribs – this effect not to be produced by carrying excessive weight.”

The breed standard also includes notes on facial features including that eyes should be medium sized and brown or hazel in colour, and ears not large or heavy and set back.

They describe the mouth as having well fitting and even teeth.

Details are described all the way down to their feet and the classic ‘otter tail’, which is thick at the base and carried low (and often underdeveloped in working bred dogs).

Permitted colours are black, yellow or liver/chocolate. Yellow can range from light cream to fox red.

Small white spots on the chest are permitted in the show ring.

Dilute colors like silver and charcoal can be registered, but not entered in the show ring. On the registry they’re described as ‘Colour Not Recognised By KC’.

You can read the UK breed standard here.

Labrador Breed Standard Australia

The Australian National Kennel Club have adopted the breed standard of the UK Kennel Club above.

They have also recognised and adopted an extension and full interpretation of that breed standard in a PDF document, which you can download.

There is an interesting bibliography of historical books about Labradors on the last page.

In 2010 the ANKC also took a remarkable step and issued a scathing position statement about silver Labradors, concluding:

“If you require more information or you wish to report the activities of a suspected silver Labrador breeder please contact the Labrador Retriever Club”

Are Labrador Breed Standards A Good Thing?

As you can see, the standards don’t leave much room for error. So what is the benefit of having such restrictive prescriptions on our Lab’s looks?

In principle, the Labrador breed standard is a good idea.

It ensures that we keep the athletic shape, structure and performance abilities of the Labrador Retriever breed intact from one generation to the next.

But in practice, there is potential for the breed standard to be misinterpreted or exaggerated. Studies have found that the single minded pursuit of conformation has placed many of our most popular dog breeds at risk of diseases.

To protect the Labrador as it was meant to be, it’s vital that breeders never misconstrue the standard, or follow it slavishly, at the expense of their litter’s health.

Many kennel clubs are also beginning to recognise this, and promote genetic testing before mating, rather than making decisions based purely on the looks or accomplishments of sire and dam.

My Labrador Doesn’t Meet The Breed Standard!

So does it matter if your Labrador doesn’t meet the breed standard?

labrador breed standard

What about if he’s too tall, or has a large white patch on his chest?

To win in the show ring, your dog will be judged by the breed standard.

So the more closely he matches it, the better your chances of success will be.

But for most of us, that isn’t an issue.

In fact the reason most people ask me if their Lab meets the breed standard is not because they hope to win in the show ring, but because they’re concerned their Labrador may not be a genuine pedigree dog.

Why Some Labradors Don’t Meet The Breed Standard

Many decades ago, Labradors bred for working were indistinguishable from Labradors bred for exhibiting. But this is no longer the case.

Nowadays, field (working) and bench (show) lines of Labrador Retrievers look very different.

So it is quite possible to have a genuine pedigree dog who not only doesn’t meet the breed standard, but is easily mistaken for a cross breed or mongrel.

I have a fox red female Labrador from working lines with a very racy body and a long slim face.

She lacks an otter tail and carries the one she does have far too high.

She is a great working gun dog, but she would be thrown out of a show ring without a second glance. And people often say to me “what breed is that?”

But she has an impeccable Labrador pedigree, so my point is: comparing your Labrador to the breed standard is not going to help you confirm whether they are purebred.

Purchasing A Puppy, And The Breed Standard

All this begs the question: when you purchase a Labrador puppy, how high should the breed standard figure in your list of priorities?

If you’d like to compete in field trials, look for puppies from successful working lines – indicated by field titles in their pedigree.

Field titles include – Amateur Field Champion (AFC) and MH (Master Hunter) in the USA, and Field Trial Champion (FTCh) in the UK.

If you want to try your chances on the show bench, or you’re simply drawn to classically built Labs, look for the descendants of show champions instead.

Whichever route you take, watch out for breeders who have gone too far.

Some field bred dogs have diverged significantly from the original Labrador of the 1920s. For example, many working lines now lack the classic otter tail.

Likewise, some show lines are unduly exaggerated – with very heavy heads, excessive weight, and overly short legs, all of which are bad for our breed as a whole.

Do Pet Labradors Need To Meet The Breed Standard?

What if you don’t have any aspirations for working or showing your Lab?

Does the breed standard matter at all if they’re simply going to be friend, family member and companion?

In these circumstances, the breed standard only has as much significance as you wish to place upon it.

You need to make sure that your pup’s parents are fully health tested. If this is the case, and the parents have wonderful temperaments, then the breed standard is fairly irrelevant.

You might even choose a Labrador in a disqualified color, or a mismarked puppy, and love them for being unique.

Remember that your puppy’s purebred status comes from being born of purebred parents – it cannot be undone by not matching the breed standard.

Summary

Breed standards are specifications about what our dogs should look like.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson

They are decided by people according to their own priorities and agendas, but they should always consider first and foremost the health and original purpose of the breed.

When you buy a Labrador puppy you will have a strong idea of what their purpose will be. For most people, it will be to provide a family companion and pet.

If you have a pet Labrador and are not interested in working or showing him, then it doesn’t matter at all whether he matches up to the breed standard.

What matters is that he is healthy and happy.

How Does Your Lab Compare?

For most of us, comparing our dogs to their breed standard is just a bit of fun.

How does your Lab measure up to the breed standard in your country?

And more seriously, do you think any changes should be made to the current breed standard?

Join in the conversation using the comments box down below!

This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2020.

References and Further Resources

Asher et al, Inherited Defects in Pedigree Dogs. Part 1: Disorders Related to Breed Standards, The Veterinary Journal, 2009.

Arman, A new direction for kennel club regulations and breed standards, The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 2007.

Wang et al, Breeding policies and management of pedigree dogs in 15 national kennel clubs, The Veterinary Journal, 2018.

McGreevy & Nicholas, Some Practical Solutions To Welfare Problems In Dog Breeding, Animal Welfare, 1999.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Pippa, very nice explanation of breed standards. I want to make you aware of one significant difference. In the United States, the parent clubs write and own the Standard, NOT the kennel club. The parent club comprises 100s of breeders from around the country. They provide the Standard to the AKC, and the AKC then registers the dogs.
    Thanks for a good article!

  2. My puppy (5 months) is developing a bit of a wavy pattern just above his tail on his back. He’s from working stock and I intend to work him when he is old enough, however I’m wondering whether this would matter if I wanted to enter him into shows? The breed standard says no waving or feathering, but it’s only slight and the fur is otherwise short and dense.

  3. I’m going to “try” my field dog in some shows in the upcoming months. He’s a beautifully muscled yellow with no less than 7 NFC/AFC/NAFC titles in his lineage and lots more MH’s!
    My girlfriend is a professional handler for other breeds and is going to help me as she also has seen the joke that the breed has become in the ring….a literal laughing stock of the show world.
    I’ll post back what I assume will be negative results from the show world that, IMO are ruining our breed.

    • Hello.as an owner of a “European show labrador” just go for it. Every judge is different. Every show is different. My boy is either too large/ over weight or too muscular and too small, too large in head or not enough muzzle or not enough in the eye… blah blah. I have seen many variations, but personally believe that the “fit for purpose ” clause is too important to ignore. Labradors should look like they can work in the way they are meant to. Good luck.

  4. I have a working fox coloured labrador who picks up regularly I am thinking of putting him in the Gamekeeper Class at Crufts fro working labs Do I have to hit the breed standards if he is to have any chance of winning he is probably a bit too long and a bit too narrow for the show classes

    • The dogs in the Gamekeeper’s Class at Crufts are usually of working type. The judges will have the breed standard in mind though. Good luck if you decide to have a go 🙂

  5. My chocolate lab is almost 6 months old and I cannot seem to get her potty trained. She does really well when I am at home but as soon as I leave she has an accident. Please help

  6. I have bred a litters of Labs and now just keep a stud dog , but I don’t really follow the Kc bred standard ever since it permit a very over weight dog to win the best of bred at cruffs a few years ago ,, vets through out the country condemned this winner as being obese ,, I think it was from Italy but may be wrong ,, now the problem I have at the moment is my current Lab is not over weight he’s very muscular and weighs in at 48 kilo I have been asked on several occasions what breed of a dog is he!! I personal feel that the Labradors are being bred to small and this is a worrying trend getting away from what the bred was a big hard working strong dog ,, but at the end of the day it’s just an opinion,, I love my labs no matter what standard the reach ,, cheers C

    • I couldn’t agree more ! I went to a show for gundog breeds and I have never seen so many fat Labs in one place, my Lab is very fit and can run all day with very little body fat but she is still 35kg, I doubt if those could manage the end of the street.

  7. My boy is from working stock…Is the same criteria applying? He doesn’t quite match all and has a slight undershot which make him have that permanent goofy look we love. I love him just the way he is and am not an advocate of Kennel Club and showing them in the ring. They are just so gorgeous and they are quite individual in their looks and personality. Love your Lab! He’s special.

  8. Hi Pippa,

    Please can you explain what “short-coupled” means. Are there photographs that show what a breed-standard-compliant Lab looks like?

    Thanks, amd much appreciated,
    Marilyn

    • That would be the distance between the last rib & the beginning of the hindquarters being relatively short. A compact looking Lab as opposed to a lanky looking one.

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