Two very different types of Labrador have developed over the last fifty years. English Labs tend to 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 are slimmer built but turbo charged, with a high prey drive, determination and intense bond with their owners. Today I will share my experience of the difference between show bred English Labradors and working American Labs. And I’ll help you to decide which of these two distinctively 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. If you are not sure which type of Labrador would be best for your family, or are just searching for some information on the different types of Labrador, this is where you’ll find what you need to know.
What are the two types of Labrador Retrievers?
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 about shooting gamebirds birds.
Like all our retriever breeds, the Lab’s original role was that of a working dog. His job was to fetch dead and wounded game back to his master. And deliver it to hand undamaged, so that it could become a valuable and sustaining source of food.
This is still the role of many working Labradors today, but so popular have the breed become as companions, that far more of these lovely dogs now live out their lives as family pets
Labradors become pets
Labradors first became popular as pets around the time that the first dog shows were springing up and exhibiting dogs was becoming a fashionable hobby. Gradually the two lines of Labrador – those bred for a role as sporting dogs, and those bred for a role as show dogs – began to diverge
As the years passed the working type Labrador and show type Labrador became more different from one another. And breeding between the two types became less common.
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 specialised, faster, and more focused. Some (not all) lost their classic Labrador looks.
While show bred Labs became a little more exaggerated, chunkier, heavier, and shorter in the leg. It was these heavier dogs that became more popular as pets and show breeders (who exceeded the field type breeders in number) gradually took over the role of providing the gene pool for the majority of pet Labradors
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). These names have nothing to do with location and everything to do with role.
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. So for American – read ‘working type’ and for English read ‘show type’. Whichever country you happen to be in.
There has always been some flexibility in the roles that these dogs play. Many 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 the family pet. But there are differences that may affect your choice. And it’s a good idea to know what they are before purchasing a puppy.
Which type of Labrador makes the best pet?
You’ll see that show Labs are often chunkier and have a more classic chiselled Labrador head than American Labs. Labradors bred specifically for gun dog work don’t just look different from Labradors bred for the show ring, they have different ‘natures’ too.
American type Labrador
The working strain Labrador is likely to be easier to train. It may be easier for example, for an inexperienced owner to get him walking nicely on a lead.
The American Labrador has a quick mind as well as a quick body, and is often a very sensitive soul that lives to please. Extremes of sensitivity can occasionally lead to nervousness, but on the whole, temperament is sound throughout the breed.
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.
English type Labrador
English type Labs are often heavier than their field bred cousins, and shorter in the leg. They may also be less agile. Though this isn’t always the case, and I have known some hefty show type Labs that are surprisingly good at jumping.
All Labradors are very lively when young, but some show bred labs become somewhat more placid, slower, and ‘chilled out’ as they age. While some of their field bred cousins tend to remain ‘high energy’ dogs for much of their lives.
As juveniles, some English Labs can be extremely playful and distractible which can be a challenge, especially if you exercise your dog in busy dog parks where they are mixing with a lot of other dogs.
This playful ‘silliness’ is partly what makes some show type Labs more difficult to train. I have one pure working type Lab and one part work/part show type Lab. My working type Labrador Tess, was quite grown up and sensible by the time her first birthday came along. My part show dog Rachael is six and is still not quite grown up!
One final thought, in the UK, show bred labs are perhaps more likely to be noisy or prone to whining than American Labs. Simply because noise is a disqualifying fault in a UK field trial and has therefore been ‘bred out’ of working dogs to a certain extent.
What is a Drakeshead Labrador?
I get asked this question 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, his pedigree will have the word Drakeshead as part of his registered pedigree Kennel Name. There are many other successful breeders of American or field type Labradors in the UK. And many well known breeders of field type Labs in the USA too.
Which is type of Lab is best for me?
The answer to ‘which type is best?’ is of course never straightforward. And it depends a bit on what you expect from your dog, and on where you live.
If you want to get active with your dog, and maybe 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 and a more managed approach to exercise outdoors. American Labs also tend to be more focused on their handler and may be more 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 agility to compete at a high level. If you want a pet that is also a hunting companion then an American type Lab is your best choice.
If you don’t want to compete in Field Trials, then consider a Lab that has been 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 sometimes be a little ‘hot’ for the inexperienced handler.
English Labs for classic good looks
For those who don’t want to spend much time training and want to have long family walks through the countryside where their dog runs free, an English type Lab may be ideal. And it may be easier to manage this show type Lab outdoors, due to his less intense hunting instincts. But perhaps the main reason people who are not looking for a hunting companion may choose an English Lab is because they love the way that they look.
Types of Labrador Heads
One of the most distinctive separate features of the two types of Labrador Retrievers is their heads. If you are hoping for a chunky dog with classic Labrador good looks and a distinctive thick otter tail, then you do stand more chance of getting the dog you want from English or show lines.
Just remember English Labs tend to take longer to grow up, be more playful, and more interested in introducing themselves to every passing stranger. 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 a little less prone to be shy or anxious.
Dual purpose Labs
A few breeders in the UK are attempting to re-create the dual purpose Labradors of the last century. Good looking medium weight dogs of substance with nice thick tails. Dogs with solid broad heads, thick coats, a well focused attentive brain inside them, and some powerful hunting and retrieving instincts.
I think this is great news for Labradors as many working bred labs have quite poor conformation. And some show Labs are too heavily built and lack some of the focus and great retrieving instincts of their working cousins.
Mixing the two lines can however, 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 choose your breeder wisely. Getting a healthy puppy that has had a healthy start in life is more important than any of the above considerations.
And that happy, confident 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