If you are thinking of bringing a Labrador into your life you need to know what you are getting into.
This honest review and assessment of Labrador Retriever characteristics and temperament, will help you decide whether or not one of these magnificent dogs is the right companion for you at this point in your life.
We’ll be looking at the Labrador’s aptitudes and abilities, his personality traits and his renowned temperament.
We’ll also be finding out what makes this breed so popular in so many parts of the world and at where our Labs originally came from.
We’ll be digging down to find out what exactly are the attributes that make a Labrador a Labrador.
Join us as we look at how the Labrador breed has become divided and how the two different types of Labrador Retriever may differ from one another.
Find out about the kinds of problems that can arise if people are unprepared for some aspects of a Labrador’s personality. And at the kinds of roles that the Labrador is most suited to.
The Labrador’s Original Purpose
Before we look at the physical characteristics of the Labrador Retriever and at his personality traits and abilities, it is helpful to briefly note where all these characteristics come from.
The Labrador falls into the category of ‘gundog breeds’ of dog.
The history of his development as the world’s favourite gundog is a fascinating story.
The origins of the Labrador have had a profound influence on his appearance, personality and behaviour.
The original fisherman’s friend
The Labrador was originally bred as a fisherman’s companion, working alongside the men and women who inhabited the inhospitable island of Newfoundland, long before modern conveniences, and technology was available.
This was a job requiring a waterproof coat thick enough to withstand very low temperatures, and an ability to swim in strong currents and for long periods of time.
Imported to England, the Lab’s role changed to that of shooting companion, where his skill at finding game, his ability to carry objects in his mouth without harming them, and his intelligence and biddable temperament would make him the world’s finest retriever.
A talented dog
From those early beginnings, Labrador Retrievers divergence into many different roles – from therapy dog, to military dog, to companion – and his competence at everything he is asked to do, has defined him.
He is clearly a dog of many talents.
Physical characteristics of the Labrador Retriever
The Labrador retriever is a sturdily built medium to large dog. He may weigh anything from 50 to 80lbs once adult, depending on his breeding.
He has a well-proportioned body with a healthy balance between length of leg and length of spine. A shape that is often described as ‘short coupled’.
What does a pedigree Labrador look like?
The distinguishing features of the Labrador Retriever are well known.
He has a broad skull with ‘chiselled’ features that are softened by his kindly expression and soft ear flaps. His body is powerful and well muscled and ends in a thick tail that tapers to a point.
The Labrador Retriever’s Coat
The Labrador’s short dense ‘wash and go’ coat comes in one of three gleaming solid colors and needs little grooming to keep it looking smart.
A thick undercoat and the water resistant top coat keep a Labrador warm in the coldest water. And a quick shake on emerging from the sea or lake, sees the majority of the water removed from its repellant surface.
The genetics of Labrador coat colour is interesting and more straightforward to understand than many other breeds of dog. Strictly speaking Labradors come in only three colours. Yellow, Chocolate (which used to be called Liver), and Black.
You will hear people use all sorts of other descriptions, but officially there is no such thing as a ‘Golden Labrador’, or a ‘Fox Red Labrador’, these are simply variations of the colour yellow.
The only colours recognised by the Kennel Clubs of the United Kingdom, and the USA are Yellow, Chocolate, Black.
Overall appearance of the Labrador
His sleek water resistant coat, soft flapped ears and thick otter tail give the Labrador an almost seal-like appearance. In the water, this likeness is intensified.
He looks as at home there as he clearly feels, swimming low in the water and confidently powered by strong webbed paws.
On land he is equally sleek and powerful, giving the overall appearance of a fit and healthy canine athlete. Let’s look a little closer at that athletic ability.
The Labrador’s athletic ability
The Labrador is a versatile dog who can sprint at speed over short distances or maintain an easy loping stride that will carry him for mile after mile.
For a moderately large dog he is suprisingly agile, capable of jumping heights well in excess of a metre.
Labrador Retriever temperament
The Labrador’s kind expression is mirrored by his kind nature. His easy going, tolerant temperament and love of water are hallmarks of the breed, but of course, not all Labradors fit this breed description precisely.
It is fair to say that sometimes poor temperament traits such as aggression and nervousness can appear in the breed.
But is it also fair to say that this is not the norm.
Special Labrador breed characteristics
Born from generations of being bred for retrieving in the shooting field, the Labrador has some special and important breed features
His gentle mouth, is capable of carrying delicate items with great care, and his urge to pick up and carry things is strong.
His ability to track items by scent alone is extraordinary and it is no surpise that Labradors are so sought after by bomb disposal teams, customs and excise authorities and those engaged in sports where tracking is involved.
Labrador Retriever Personality
Many people are convinced that their Labrador has a sense of humor, and some Labradors are extremely playful, and not just as puppies
Others can be bumptious, clumsy, and bouncy, especially when young.
Temperament, abilities and general personality may of course vary somewhat from individual to individual. But more importantly, in the last half century, the Labrador has been divided into two distinct types.
We’ll take a look at those now because not every Labrador is suited to every home, and some homes are better suited to one type than to the other.
Some of the traits of the Labrador Retriever depend which group of Labradors he belongs to.
Two different types of Labrador
For over the last fifty or so year, Labradors in both the UK and the USA have effectively become divided into two quite distinctive strains.
Characteristics of ‘English’ or show bred labradors
Most people are familiar with the picture book image of the broad headed, heavy weight show bred lab, known as the English Lab in the USA and the Show lab in the UK
The AKC describes the labrador as being distinguished by its
“short, dense, weather resistant coat; an “otter” tail; a clean-cut head with broad back skull and moderate stop; powerful jaws; and its “kind,”friendly eyes, expressing character, intelligence and good temperament.”
The British Kennel Club breed standard also describes a dog with a broad skull, wide nose, and thick tapering ‘otter tail.
The KC also describes the breed as ‘agile’, though this is a slightly optimistic description of some show dogs.
Characteristics of American or working bred labradors
A large number of labradors are born each year from working stock, and their appearance is likely to be very different.
He often lacks the characteristic ‘otter tail’.
He is likely to have longer ears, a narrower head and generally less substance.
His eyes may be closer together/more forward facing and he is likely to be more ‘sensitive’ in nature, and more enthusiastic about retrieving and generally racing around.
Whether this division in the breed is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter for argument.
Many Labrador enthusiasts would like to see show dogs carry less weight and field bred dogs to have a more classic labrador appearance, but we are unlikely to see a convergence of the strains anytime soon.
Retrieving ability in Labradors
Most Labradors, even those from show stock have an inborn urge to retrieve things.
This is often reflected in their fondness for carrying things around in their mouths and even chewing things up.
The basic urge to chase and pick things up is of course a result of generations of breeding for the Labrador Retrievers’ original purpose. The instinct to bring those things back can be more variable!
These are dogs with friendly, often exuberant, personalities and a sense of fun.
Despite the differences in show and field strains of labrador, there are still many Labrador characteristics that are common to both types.
In particular their dependable good nature, sense of fun, and love of human companionship which perhaps more than anything else has made them so popular as pets today.
Despite his popularity both as a companion and as a service dog The Labrador is first and foremost a retriever.
His role as such is to remain close to his master at all times, until required to retrieve an animal or bird that has been shot.
Anything he is asked to do, including retrieving gently to hand, he is expected to do willingly, unquestioningly, and quickly.
The Labrador’s highly co-operative and intelligent temperament reflects that role perfectly and it is what has made him such a perfect fit for so many roles in our society
Who are Labradors well suited for?
Despite the fact that Labradors are so popular, some people are not well suited to life with a large dog that is boisterous and destructive when young, sheds copious amounts of hair and has a particular affection for mud and rolling in dead things.
Labradors are social and affectionate dogs who do not like being left alone for long periods of time, so if you work full time, then daily dog care is essential.
You can find out more about that here:
If you are not house proud and have time to exercise train, and simply be with, an athletic, affectionate, and powerful dog.
You might well enjoy life with a Lab.
You can find out more about whether you and a Labrador would be a good match in this article : Six things to consider before getting a Lab.
How about you?
What do you love most about your Labrador, and what do you think is the most significant characteristic of Labradors as a breed?
More information on puppies
The Happy Puppy Handbook covers every aspect of life with a small puppy.
The book will help you prepare your home for the new arrival, and get your puppy off to a great start with potty training, socialisation and early obedience.
The Happy Puppy Handbook is available worldwide.
This article was originally published in 2011 and has been completely revised and updated for 2015
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