Different Types Of Labrador – Which Is Right For You

Bonnie is an American type of Labrador

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.

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.

The author’s field bred Lab: Bella

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.

The author’s field bred Lab: Tess

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.

Labradors bred to be hunting companions don’t just look different from Labradors bred for the show ring, they have different ‘natures’ too.

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.

Different types of Labrador -we compare English and American Labs

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!

As juveniles, some English Labs can be over-friendly and distractible which can be a challenge, especially if you exercise your dog in busy dog parks around a lot of other dogs.

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.

Before looking at which Labrador type might be best suited to your family, let’s discuss another type of Labrador that I am often asked about.

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.

There are 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.  It depends a bit on your expectations of your dog, and on your location.

Find out which type of Labrador is the right choice for you and your family

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.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson(paid link)

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


  1. There is a breed standard as laid down by the Kennel Club. There should be no deviations from this. This is what reputable breeders are aiming for. There’s no such thing as an American lab.
    They are all Labrador Retrievers and should be as close to the Breed Standard as possible. …. and as for colours…only Black, Yellow and Chocolate. Nothing else.

  2. Hi Pippa, my black lab working dog with exceptional pedigree is now 6 years old, always complimented by others for his good looks, really large size and lovely temperament. I would like to breed him with a reputable breeder who has a strain of dog with equal features but not sure how to go about looking for a breader that would have an equally good match. Most of the working lab breeds I see in my area of Kent are really small in stature which is rather off putting, please advise.

  3. Until AKC splits the breed, and I hope they will, I’ll only recognize the English bred Labrador. I’m a purist I guess, the breed was originally recognized as being English bred. The blocky head, thick 2 inch double coat and thick otter tail and heavy bone are this breeds unique characteristics. A short single coat, whippy tail, long legs, houndy ears and face are not the hallmarks of a purebred which is why I hope the breed is split. Don’t even get me started on “fox red” “silver” and “white” colored Labs. They are not recognized or natural colors for a Lab to be. These are due to intermixing Viszla, Weimeriener blood which also adds to short coat, long ears, long legs.
    I’m a lover of Labs since 1977 but not a breeder, I grew up at dog shows and still attend them at times. Though I believe only the original conformation guidelines to be a true Lab I’m saddened to see overweight Labs in the show ring.

  4. I have always had Fox Red (Red Fox) field Labs. All of my dogs have had beautiful heads and svelt bodies. I train and compete in agility, field trials and tracking with my Labs.

  5. I have adopted a Labrador Retriever mix she is a tan color she is felt like an axe how can I tell exactly what kind of a lab she is. In one way she seem like an English Labrador then in another she looks like American Labrador. Do I really need to do a DNA or is there another easy way. But no matter I just love her dearly. She is my 3rd Labrador in my lifetime. Hope to get an answer. Thank you.

  6. We adopted an older “English ” black lab three months ago, that is about 11 years old. She has the classic block head, shorter legs, distinct otter type tail and has a deep rich colored black coat. Her name is Maisey, and she gets comments all the time from people who can not believe how old she is. She {for her age } is very friendly, energetic, loves to swim, and always open to meeting new people and dogs. I looked long and hard to find a mature lab, and struck gold when I found my girl. Her and I enjoy being retired and living the good life in a cabin in the woods.

  7. I have a young American “field” bred lab who also has some golden retriever in him. Other than his fur being a touch longer than your typical lab, he looks like a black, field bred or “american” type; the long legs and body, tall stature and narrower, less boxy head. He’s the kind of good looking dog that makes grown men wearing camouflage Under Armour stuff stop and admire him from afar, LOL. Temperament wise, he is your typical retriever – needs to carry something in his mouth when he’s excited, loves to romp, run and play with other dogs, but that’s about as far as it goes. He would make a terrible bird dog. He has zero prey drive (he was raised with cats which probably lulled the urge to chase small animals,) and is also the laziest retriever I’ve ever seen. He’s happy to bring the ball back to you maybe 5 times before he gets bored, lol. His talents are more geared towards loving people. Exceptionally sweet, he adores children and would make an excellent therapy dog. I definitely thought that he would be a lot more energetic given his lines, but he really is the perfect family dog at heart; a great hiking companion, and also a couch potato. Sometimes it doesn’t always matter the lines – definitely meet the parents of the puppies if you can (any reputable breeder, or at the very least, decent person selling their puppies will allow this.) This will give you some idea of what your dog is likely to emulate as they get older.

  8. Pippa,
    Great article on the Lab. I am a current owner of an American Lab. I am wanting to get an English Lab soon. What are the weight averages for a male English Lab?