Labrador temperament is often described in very positive terms. And many people have pre-conceived ideas about what their Labrador puppy’s temperament will be like when he or she is grown up.
In this article we’re going to delve into the topic of dog temperament in general, and Labrador temperament in particular and look at some of the latest studies and findings.
There has been quite a bit of research published on dog temperament in the last couple of decades.
Both on developing tests for more accurately evaluating temperament and looking at temperament differences between breeds or types of dog.
As a result our knowledge and understanding of temperament in Labradors and other dogs has grown.
Measuring Labrador temperament
Improvements in the accuracy and relevance of tests for evaluating temperament in adult or nearly adult dogs are important. Especially in Labradors and other breeds that carry out important jobs in our society.
Some studies have been carried out on guide dogs, and their findings are often relevant to Labradors because most guide dogs are either Labradors or Labrador mixes.
Studies on guide dogs have shown that temperament assessments carried out on dogs at a year old can be reliable predictors of the dog’s ability to respond to training and work
Differences in temperament between dog breeds
Studies show that there are measurable differences in personality traits between different groups of dogs.
One aspect of canine temperament or personality that has the most serious impact on people, is aggression.
In 2016 The Independent – a UK newspaper – ran a story in which they revealed the shock news that the Labrador was the dog ‘most likely to bite’ in the UK.
Unfortunately, this article was confusing readers by taking information from a report about personal injury claims and the dogs causing them, instead of looking at the proportion of dogs of any breed that actually bit someone.
Essentially, the dogs blamed for biting, were dogs that happened to be popular.
The fact of course, is that a proportion of all dogs will bite. And the more popular a dog breed is, the more dog bites will be reported for that breed. That does not mean that individuals of that breed have an increased chance of biting someone.
Many people campaigning to stop dog breeds being labelled as ‘biters’ or ‘dangerous’ and are encouraging aggression to be regarded specifically as a ‘man made’ issue, caused by poor socialisation.
Like so many issues however, this one is not straightforward, and studies have shown that distinctive difference in dog temperament do exist between different breeds.
A 2008 study showed that Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers were more likely to show aggression towards both strangers and their owners. While Australian Cattle Dogs were more likely to show aggression to strangers, and American Cocker Spaniels and Beagles were the most likely to show aggression towards their own owners.The effects of aggression will depend on the size and biting style of the dog. Which is why dog bite studies show that some breeds of dog are more likely to kill or cause serious injury than others.
In a 12 year period between 2005 and 2016 for example, 392 Americans were killed by dogs. And despite many dog breeds being numerically great then Pitbulls, it was Pitbulls which accounted for 65% of those deaths. Pitbulls are a banned breed in some countries, including the UK
Don’t have nightmares by the way, the National Safety Council estimates that your risk of being bitten by a dog is still less than 1 in 100,000. And by choosing your dog carefully and socialising him thoroughly as a puppy, you can reduce this risk further.
Now let’s look at Labradors again. And find out what Labrador temperament is really like
What is Labrador temperament like?
Labradors are generally well known for their equable and friendly nature. This is not a myth.
Despite the Independent’s scary article, that 2008 study I mentioned above also showed that Labradors (along with Golden Retrievers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Brittany Spaniels, Greyhounds and Whippets were the least aggressive dog breeds, both toward both humans and other dogs.
So you can rest easy on that score.
Now here are some of the other frequent assumptions made about Labrador temperament. Let’s find out if they are true!
Labrador retriever temperament is outgoing
On the whole this statement is true. Most Labradors are confident, outgoing friendly dogs. Happy to talk to strangers, and to welcome guests into your home.
You should be aware that this welcome may be extended equally to burglars!
It’s also important to be aware that some Labradors can be fearful or nervous, and that there are ways to minimise there risk of your Labrador turning out this way.
We’ll look at that in more detail below when we talk about how Labs get their temperament.
Labrador retriever temperament is kind
Kindness is another of those traits that is difficult to quantify, and all we have to go on is anecdotal evidence. But I think it is fair to say that this statement is generally true of Labs.
Labs tend to be very affectionate. And there are many reports of Labradors showing great kindness and empathy when their humans are sad
Labrador retriever temperament is even tempered
This is true, it is pretty hard to provoke or annoy most Labs. They are tolerant of all kinds of behaviour that they probably don’t particularly enjoy. Being hugged and climbed on by small children for example.
This doesn’t mean that you should allow anyone to annoy or provoke your dog, but it does make him a much safer animal to have around should an accident occur
Once again, it’s important to point out that not all Labradors share this trait, and you really need to check carefully on the parents before you buy a puppy. And because tolerance levels vary from dog to dog you need to supervise interactions between dogs and children
Labrador retriever temperament is intelligent
Some experts like to look at intelligence separately from temperament. But Labrador intelligence is legendary and many Labrador owners will consider this part and parcel of their dog’s Labrador personality
While intelligence may vary from one dog to another within a breed, and can be difficult to define, the Labrador breed as a whole is generally considered to be highly intelligent.
It’s hard to separate intelligence from trainability – ability to learn and willingness to learn are hard to tease apart. A 2011 study looked at trainability differences between different groups of dogs. The Labrador belongs to the sporting group and the study found that the dogs in this group were more trainable than non-sporting dogs
Something that won’t surprise many Labrador owners
It is this willingness and ability to learn, together with the Labrador’s co-operative and companionable nature, that makes them such good service dogs in a whole range of disciplines
Labrador retriever temperament is gentle
Hmm. This assumption is subject to some provisos. It is certainly true of many mature Labradors. But it isn’t something you should rely on. And it isn’t a personality trait found in many young Labs.
On the contrary, Labradors under a year old can be extremely boisterous and clumsy, and actually pose a small risk to anyone unsteady on their feet.
I’m thinking of toddlers just learning to walk, and elderly people whose balance isn’t great.
If your family includes members of either of these and you are wanting to get a Labrador, you may need to opt for an older dog.
Different types of Labrador temperament
People often make assumptions about Labrador temperament based on their color
Let’s have a look at that next
Chocolate Labrador temperament
You’ll often hear people say that Chocolate Labs are dumb. Or hard to train.
While it isn’t true that Chocolate Labs are dumb, they are in some areas more likely to be English Labs than American or working type. (See below)
Black Lab temperament
In the same way, Black Labs tend to be favoured by the hunting or shooting communities, and may be considered by some to be smarter because of this.
The fact is, that Labrador coat color does not affect directly the personality traits of individual dogs. However, the genetic information a dog inherits from his parents (who may or may not be the same color) most certainly does.
English Lab temperament vs American Lab
A study published in 2015 showed that dogs bred from working lines were more trainable than dogs bred from show lines.
This is not particularly surprising bearing in mind that working line (or American type) Labradors have been selectively bred for this characteristic.
You can read much more about the differences between these two types of Lab in our guide to English Labs
Labrador temperament problems
The Labrador breed is not immune from temperament problems.
Aggressive or reactive Labradors can and do exist. And this can be a bigger problem than aggression in other breeds. This is mainly because people tend to approach strange Labradors in the expectation that a Labrador will be friendly and pleased to meet them.
Owning a grumpy Labrador is not fun. So how do you make sure your Labrador puppy will have a good temperament?
How Labrador temperament is created
Temperament is created in two ways
- The influence of the parent’s genes
- The influence of the puppy’s environment.
The foundations of a puppy’s temperament are inherited from his parents, but the way he is raised can have quite an impact on the temperament of the dog you end up with in a year or so.
Choosing the right parents
Your first step to success though is dependent on your choice of breeder and on the parents of your puppy.
A puppy that has been bred with care will have two parents with excellent temperament.
This gives you the best chance of raising a good natured dog.
Do your utmost to see both parents when you are chosing a puppy. And be absolutely determined to walk away if the parents are not friendly and welcoming. I cannot stress how important this is.
Many years ago I purchased a Labrador on the weight of the Stud Dog which I loved, and after driving a very long way to collect him I had some concerns about the mother. She was slightly ‘stiff’ and unwelcoming, though she was not overtly aggressive.
Tired from the long drive, and having longed for a pup by this particular stud dog, I swept my concerns aside and took the puppy home. We had to cope with a lifetime of temperament issues with this dog, despite thoroughly socialising him.
It really is not worth the risk.
Mum should come happily out to greet you, tail wagging furiously, that’s the bottom line. If you cannot see Dad, make sure you get a reference from someone that has met him, as to his good temperament.
Don’t forget that whilst the temperament of the parents may give you some idea as to the potential temperament of the puppy, a part of his final temperament is dependent on correct socialisation.
Socialize your puppy
Effective puppy socialization is the other essential ingredient to good temperament. Much dog aggression is linked to ‘fear’ or feeling threatened.
The more thoroughly and effectively you socialise your dog, the more confident and fearless he will be. Fearless dogs are normally friendly dogs. Fearful dogs are more likely to become aggressive.
‘Guarding’ instincts (which many labs do not have at all) are often based in ‘fear’ and are likely to be diminished through socialisation. Dogs with a guarding instinct will attempt to protect their home/property against what they consider to be a threat.
The better a dog is socialised, the less things he will find threatening.
A very well socialised dog will feel threatened by very little and is more likely to invite a burglar in and offer him the key to the safe, than to chase him away.
Don’t expect a guard dog
People often expect quite a lot from their dogs. Many people want a dog that is both friendly and good natured, especially around children.
But they also want a dog that will guard their home. Or at the very least, bark at intruders.
The Labrador I mentioned above with aggression issues was a wonderful guard dog. There is no way any intruder would have stayed very long in our home. But it was not worth the price we had to pay, in terms of constant vigilance, to protect friends and innocent visitors.
Many UK residents may find this strange, but I actually receive a lot of correspondence from people overseas, asking me to tell them how to teach their Labrador to bark, and asking how they can stop their dog being so friendly!
Asking for a dog to be both great around kids and to keep intruders at bay is actually quite a tall order. That is not to say that a dog can’t do both, some can. But not all.
And there are serious risks in increasing guarding instincts deliberately, especially when bringing a large dog into a family where there are small children.
Your ‘guarding’ dog may be nice enough to family members under normal circumstance, but you have the rest of the world to consider. Once you have your own children, other people’s children soon come into the equation. And a dog with guarding instincts can be a real worry and a problem when you have frequent child visitors.
Labrador temperament – summary
As a breed, the Labrador tends to be tolerant, outgoing, friendly and affectionate to all. He is smart, and co-operative and easy to train.But as a youngster he can be boisterous and clumsy, so may not be an ideal companion for a toddler
There are exceptions – and nervousness can result in aggression, so choose your puppy wisely and socialize him thoroughly
My personal feeling is that it is not appropriate to expect a Labrador to be a guard dog. Most Labradors have minimal guarding instincts. And I certainly don’t teach people how to make their Labradors less friendly.
Accept your lovable, greedy, friendly, bouncy lab for what he is, socialize him well and be grateful you will never have to worry about him biting the mail man.
Let him be a labrador. There really is nothing nicer, don’t you think?
More help and information
References and further reading
Deborah L. Duffya, Yuying Hsub, James A. Serpella, Breed differences in canine aggression. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2008
James A. Serpell & Yuying A. Hsu Effects of breed, sex, and neuter status on trainability in dogs. Anthrozoos 2015
Borbála Turcsán, , Enikő Kubinyi , Ádám Miklósi. Trainability and boldness traits differ between dog breed clusters based on conventional breed categories and genetic relatedness. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2011
Linda P. Goodloe, Peter L. Borchelt. Companion Dog Temperament Traits. Journal
Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 2010
Masami Maejima et al. Traits and genotypes may predict the successful training of drug detection dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2007
Yuying Hsu, PhD James A. Serpell, PhD Development and validation of a questionnaire for measuring behavior and temperament traits in pet dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2003
Katy D. Taylor, Daniel S. Mills, The development and assessment of temperament tests for adult companion dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 2006.
Deborah L. Duffy, James A. Serpell. Predictive validity of a method for evaluating temperament in young guide and service dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2012.