Two different types of Labrador have developed over the last fifty years. English Labs often have broader heads, thicker tails, a barrel chest and a healthy helping of enthusiasm for greeting every person and dog they meet. American type Labs have a leaner body shape, and turbo charged temperament, with a high prey drive, determination and intense bond with their owners.
Today I will share my experience of the differences between show bred English Labradors and working American Labs. And I’ll help you decide which of these two different types of Labrador Retriever is the best pet for your family.
- English vs American Labradors
- Why the Labrador lines were separated
- Which Labrador type is the best pet?
- Activities and hunting
- Drakeshead Labs
How your Lab behaves and what they look like will depend to some extent on their origins. So we’ll look at how the two types of Lab emerged and how those origins have influenced your Labrador’s appearance and personality.
What are the two types of Labrador Retrievers?
The two different types of Labradors are American Labradors, also known as field bred or working Labradors, and the English Labradors, also known as show or bench Labs, bred for showing and as companion dogs.
Why are there different types of Lab?
Labrador Retrievers were developed as the breed we know today by a couple of English aristocrats in the 1800s who were passionate hunters of gamebirds.
Like all our retriever breeds, the Labrador’s original role was that of a working dog. The Lab’s job was to retrieve shot game for their master. And to deliver this valuable food source to hand, in a fit state for the table!
Labradors become pets
This is still the role of working Labradors today, but the popularity of the breed as companions, means that most of these lovely dogs now live out their lives as family pets
Labradors became popular as pets around the time that the first dog shows were springing up and exhibiting dogs in the show ring was becoming a fashionable hobby.
Naturally the role or purpose of dogs being bred, influences the breeder’s decisions about which Labradors to include in their breeding program. Show breeders focus more on looks, while those breeding hunting companions focus more on ability.
Dual purpose Labradors
At first many Labs were what is termed ‘dual purpose’. Capable of winning in the show ring and in the field.
But as Field Trial competitions became more demanding, field bred labs became more specialized, with a leaner build, and more speed and focus. Some (not all) lost their classic Labrador looks. While show bred Labs became a little more exaggerated, with chunkier bodies, heavier heads, and shorter legs.
It was these heavier dogs that became more popular as pets, and show breeders (who soon outnumbered the field type breeders) took over the role of providing puppies for pet homes.
In this way, the divergence between working type Labradors and show type Labrador became established. Breeding between the two types became less common. And the last dual Champion Labrador died many years ago.
English vs American Labradors
In the USA the two types of Labrador also acquired some new names – English (for the show type) and American (for the pet type).
We’ll stick to those terms here as most of you are reading in America, but the terms American and working or field type Lab are interchangeable. And the same applies to the terms English and show or bench type Lab.
All Labs are in fact English in origin. These names have nothing to do with location, or place of birth, and everything to do with role. So for American – read ‘working type’ and for English read ‘show type’. Whichever country you happen to be in.
Which type of Labrador makes the best pet?
There has always been some flexibility in the roles that these dogs play. Labs of either type are incredibly versatile.
Many English Labs will do a passable job of fetching a bird for you. And many American Labs will do a good job of being your family pet. But each type has characteristics that may affect your choice. And it’s a good idea to understand those different traits before purchasing a puppy.
You’ll see that show Labs are often chunkier and have a more classic chiselled Labrador head than American Labs. Some people prefer this look.
American type Labrador
The American Labrador has a quick mind as well as a quick body, and is often a very sensitive soul that lives to please. Because of this sensitivity, the working strain Labrador is generally easier to train using the traditional methods still popular in the hunting community.
Extremes of sensitivity can occasionally lead to nervousness, and reactivity can be a problem in some working lines. Reactive dogs make very challenging pets and a robust confidence, with no trace of shyness, is an important characteristic to look for in the parents of your puppy.
Outdoors in the open, American Labradors may have very strong hunting instincts and be more likely to pursue your local wildlife. This can be a problem for those living in rural areas or exercising their dogs in countryside populated with rabbits or squirrels!
Some (not most) American Labs will have so much ‘drive’ that an inexperienced owner will struggle to gain control on their daily walks together. Especially if they don’t pay enough attention to the dog. This is something to consider if you like to relax and chat with friends whilst out walking your dog off the leash.
English type Labrador
English type Labs are often heavier than their field bred cousins, and shorter in the leg. Some lack agility, though I have known some heavyweight show type Labs that are surprisingly good at jumping.
All Labradors are boisterous when young, but show Labs tend to become chilled out as they mature, while some of their field bred cousins remain high energy dogs throughout their lives. .
I had one pure working type Lab and one part work/part show type Lab that were close in age. My working type Labrador Tess, was quite sensible by the time her first birthday arrived. My part show dog Rachael was still not a grown-up at ten!
One final thought, in the UK, working labs are less likely to be prone to whining than show Labs. Simply because noise is a disqualifying fault in a field trial and has been ‘bred out’ of working lines to an extent.
What is a Drakeshead Labrador?
This question comes up quite a bit! There isn’t actually a special type of Labrador that is known as a Drakeshead Lab. Drakeshead is actually just a British Labrador Kennel name. The Drakeshead Kennel is a famous kennel in England that breeds and competes (very successfully) working type Labradors. They also export Labradors to other countries.
If your Labrador is from the Drakeshead kennels, their pedigree will have the word Drakeshead as part of the registered pedigree Kennel Name of your dog.
Which is type of Lab is best for me?
The answer to ‘which type is best?’ is of course never straightforward. It depends a bit on your expectations of your dog, and on your location.
If you want to get involved with some Labrador activities or sports, then a Labrador from working lines might suit you best.
American type Labradors for activities and hunting
Working bred labs respond best to lots of human contact, a structured training program, and a more managed approach to exercise outdoors. American Labs have good focus, tend to be attentive to their handler and responsive to training. This can be helpful if you want to get involved in a sport or activity that involves your dog.
Dog agility is a popular sport that American type Labs can excel at, while English Labs may lack the flexibility and speed needed to compete at a high level. If you want a pet that is also a hunting companion or retriever, then an American type Lab is your best choice.
If you don’t want to compete in Field Trials, then consider a Lab bred with the average hunter or shooting man or woman in mind. Dogs bred for field trials in the UK and in the USA can be rather ‘hot’ for the inexperienced handler.
English Labs for classic good looks
If agility doesn’t interest you, and you don’t want to train a hunting companion, but prefer long family walks through the countryside where your dog runs free, an English type Lab may be ideal.
You may find it easier to manage a show type Lab outdoors, due to their less intense hunting instincts.
But perhaps the main reason people not seeking a hunting companion may choose an English Lab is because they love their looks.
Different Types of Labrador Heads And Tails
One of the features that separates the two types of Labrador Retrievers is their heads. If you prefer a dog with classic Labrador good looks including a broad head, and a thick otter tail, you are more likely to find those features in a dog from English or show lines.
Beauty if of course in the eye of the beholder. And some of those at home with the working type Lab will find the head size and shorter legs of the English Lab unattractive. Both types of Labrador can make great family dogs though the English type may be less prone to shyness or reactivity.
Will Dual purpose Labs Return?
There are breeders whose goal is to recreate the dual purpose Labradors of the last century. Dogs of substance with thick tails, dense double coats, broad heads, a well focused brain and good retrieving instincts.
I think this is great news for Labradors as many working bred labs have quite poor conformation. Some show Labs suffer from a heavy build, too much loose skin around the eyes, and lack some of the focus and strong retrieving instincts of their working cousins.
I have been lucky with my working show mix dogs, but mixing lines can produce variable results and is always a bit of a gamble. You could end up with a dog with poor conformation and poor hunting and retrieving instincts. It’s the chance you take.
Whichever type of Labrador you choose for a pet, make sure you select your breeder wisely. Getting a healthy puppy with the right start in life is more important than any of the above considerations.
The confidence and friendly Labrador temperament we expect from these beautiful dogs should be your number one priority.
Different types of Labrador
Here are some broad guidelines that do not apply to all individuals of either type.
For a hunting companion or to fulfil your ambition to take part in Dog Agility, choose an American or working type Labrador. And for a more sensitive, focused and trainable dog, also go for a working type Labrador
For the classic Labrador tail, and chunky head, with robust and playful temperament, go for and English, or show type.
If you are a bit of a gambler and none of these things matter very much to you, then a mix between the two types might suit you. But remember that these are very broad guidelines. There are huge differences between litters, and between individuals in the same litter.
Whichever type of Labrador you choose, be sure to check out health clearances, and meet the parents to ensure great temperament. Build on those great genes with a thorough program of puppy socialisation and proper exercise and nutrition for your puppy.
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