Different Types Of Labrador – Which Is Right For You

Bonnie is an American type of Labrador

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.


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?

The two different types of Labradors are American Labradors, also known as field bred or working Labradors, and the English Labradors, bred for showing.

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

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).  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.

The author’s field bred Lab: Tess

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.

Different types of Labrador -we compare English and American Labs

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.

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

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.

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

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.

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson

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?