The Labrador Retriever is the traditional waterdog of Newfoundland, long employed as a duck retriever and fisherman’s mate. The breed began its steady climb to supreme popularity in the early 1800s, when Labs were spotted by English nobles visiting Canada. These sporting earls and lords returned to England with fine specimens of “Labrador dogs.” (Exactly how these dogs of Newfoundland became associated with Labrador is unclear, but the name stuck.) During the latter half of the 19th century, British breeders refined and standardized the breed.
The physical and temperamental breed traits, so familiar today to millions of devotees around the world, recall the Lab’s original purpose. A short, dense, weather-resistant coat was preferred because during a Canadian winter longhaired retrievers would be encrusted with ice when coming out of the water. In its ancestral homeland, a Lab would be assigned to a fishing boat to retrieve the fish that came off the trawl. Accordingly, in addition to having natural instincts as a retriever, the dog required a coat suited to the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
The Lab’s thick, tapering tail—an “otter tail,” it’s called— serves as a powerful rudder, constantly moving back and forth as the dog swims and aids the dog in turning. As for the breed’s characteristic temperament, it is as much a hallmark of the breed as the otter tail. “The ideal disposition is one of a kindly, outgoing, tractable nature; eager to please and nonagressive towards man or animal,” the breed standard says. “The Labrador has much that appeals to people; his gentle ways, intelligence and adaptability make him an ideal dog.” When defining a Lab’s primary attributes, the most important might be temperament since his utility depends on his disposition. “If a dog does not possess true breed temperament,” wrote a noted dog judge, “he is not a Labrador.”
The Kennel Club (England) recognized the Lab in 1903, and the AKC registered its first dog of the breed in 1917. Labs topped AKC registrations for the first time in 1991 and has reigned as America’s favorite breed ever since.
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