Why the Labrador Is the World's Most Popular Bird Dog
November 02, 2017
Labrador retrievers dominate market share when it comes to what hunters choose for the field and the duck blind - and for good reason.
A lot of Americans make fun of Canada for producing two things we all should appreciate — maple syrup and hockey. Naturally, our neighbors to the north have introduced more than that to the world, including the world's most popular bird dog.
Labrador retrievers absolutely dominate in popularity when it comes to sporting dogs, but they didn't actually come from Labrador. Instead, they originated in Newfoundland, although there are a few theories floating around out there in the dog-o-sphere that claim the breed actually began in Portugal.
Regardless, it's fairly safe to say that the breed we know as the Lab really took root in the 19th century when upper-class British sportsmen began to import them from Newfoundland. The Labs' job at this time in their homeland was to work with Newfoundland fishermen to retrieve lines and fish that had slipped their hooks, which begins to explain the breed's insatiable desire to work for us and to retrieve anything it can, especially if water is involved.
As you can probably imagine, across the pond they were used for a different task — shooting sport. St. John's Dogs, as they were called, were found to be ideal for hunting. Somewhere in the late 1800s the "Labrador" moniker was given to the breed by the Earl of Malmesbury as the earliest efforts at a breeding program were taking hold in Britain.
Up until nearly 1900, Labradors were always black, until the Duke of Buccleuch bred them to take on a more liver color. Yellow Labs would hit the scene at nearly the same time, but it wasn't until the time of Prohibition in the U.S. that the first chocolate Labs would be born.
The Lab was first recognized by the English Kennel Club in 1903 and the American Kennel Club in 1917. The dogs that belong to either club these days owe their existences to a few individuals in England who carried on the bloodlines after the original lines in Newfoundland disappeared. They nearly suffered the same fate in England, but fortunately did not.
That's good news for anyone with a penchant for shotgunning birds, especially wildfowl, and it's the demand for a bird dog that can do as many tasks as you're willing to ask of it that took the Labrador from near obscurity to becoming the most popular sporting breed of the 21st century.
Today, Labs come in a variety of colors and are often broken into two distinct categories — American and British. With the former, few people have as much experience as well-known dog trainer and Oak Ridge Kennels founder, Tom Dokken (www.dokkensoakridgekennels.com). When it comes to Labs, he is quick to sing their praises. There is, however, one point that he circles back to over and over, and that is that the Lab is a versatile working dog.
"The biggest thing for me when I was really figuring out dogs was that I was a multi-species hunter," Dokken recalls. "I'm just as passionate about upland birds of all kinds as I am about waterfowl, and I needed a dog that could handle any hunting situation that I would put it in. That was the Lab. They also make a great family dog, their coat is easily manageable, and their temperament is excellent. What's not to like?"
Dokken's query, while rhetorical, is poignant because if you're in the market for a flushing dog that will truly be an asset in the field and in the home, the Lab checks an awful lot of boxes in the positive category.
It's not just their ability to master varying tasks that makes the Lab so appealing, however. According to Dokken, it's how trainable they are as well. "They've been bred for generations to work hand in hand with their owner. It's something that you're able to do with them at an extremely young age. Their personality allows you to be able to ask a ton of them, and they will do their best to get things right."
A fellow trainer who echoes Dokken's sentiments when it comes to Labs is Mike Stewart, a retired police chief who founded Wildrose Kennels (www.uklabs.com) and is extremely passionate about British Labs. Stewart has devoted a serious amount of time to importing and breeding British Labs that offer what he and his clients are looking for in a dog. Multi-tasking and biddability are high on his list.
"When I got into Labs, I started training them for waterfowl," Steward relates. "Then I got into upland, and then cross-training for the two. It doesn't take long to understand how versatile they really are. In fact, since 2007 I've been training our Labs to be adventure dogs as well, which means they learn to tag along while their owners hike, or bike, or even canoe.
"We also train them to be therapy dogs, to work with military profession shopping in a social setting. Lately we have been training Labs to alert diabetics when their blood sugar is too high or too low, which is something the dogs can sense 30 minutes before the standard blood-sugar alarm goes off."
I asked both Dokken and Stewart why they chose either American or British Labs, and the responses I received surprised me. Neither gave a definitive answer for their choice, and both immediately began to discuss breeding and bloodlines and how important pedigree is when it comes to quality Labs.
Bloodline Are Everything
It's pretty easy to lock into wanting a certain breed of bird dog or a certain color of a breed without thinking about the generations behind your potential pick. Plain and simple, this is a mistake. Good dogs come from good breeding, and while the Lab generally possesses a litany of personality traits most folks would love, there is no denying the importance of proper bloodlines, especially when you're interested in a bird dog.
Stewart, who has more experience than most when it comes to fussing over bloodlines, stressed this over and over in our chat. "I sell predictability with my dogs, which comes from genetics," he says. "I want dogs that are easy to train and don't require a lot of pressure, which is one of the reasons I gravitated toward the British Labs.
"I think, in general, that American Labs can handle a little more heavy-handedness when it comes to training. British Labs really can't. I also want my dogs to have game-finding and retrieving ability, and prey drive. They have to be willing to get into the cover and love the water. I ask a lot of my dogs, so they have to be bred to perform the way I and my clients like them to."
Stewart took control of his bloodlines to ensure he gets the type of puppies he wants, and he is not alone. As Dokken explained, there are a lot of quality bloodlines out there if you know where to look. "They are so popular that there are a lot of Labs available, but if you want a good one you'll have to do some research," Dokken warns. "Pedigree is everything, and not every Lab will have a strong hunting background or possess the right retrieving desire.
"Personally, I take a look at the parents, grandparents, and great-great grandparents of a litter and see how they've fared in hunt tests and field trials. Even if you're not going to run a dog in a test or a trial, dogs that come from that type of breeding demonstrate a work ethic and a level of undeniable intelligence.
"That's so important, because you're not just buying a dog that can retrieve. You want one that is a smart athlete. Get that, and you'll be happy in the field."
Healthy & Happy
A well-bred Lab is not only likely to be a hunting machine and a great family dog, but will also live a long, healthy life provided you do your part. This isn't the case with dogs that possess questionable breeding, and is the reason that it's so common to hear about Labs developing hip or elbow dysplasia at a young age. It's also the reason that the golden retriever, a breed that was once nearly as popular as Labs are now, has declined in favor. Poor breeding with emphasis on looks and not health or performance has taken a good percentage of the available goldens into a less desirable realm.
Labs, because of their sheer popularity, can suffer a similar fate when it comes to health. A well-bred puppy with all of its health clearances will cost you more than a farm dog or a puppy-mill offering, but you'll get what you pay for. Generally, a really quality Lab will carry a price tag of $800 on the low end to $2000 on the high end.
It would be safe to assume the more expensive dogs will be the best, but that's not always the case. This is especially true when it comes to certain color phases (see sidebar), and again, it boils down to pedigree. If you're not comfortable researching pedigrees, enlist the help of a professional to guide you in the process.
It'll cost a bit more, but having an amazing dog will be worth it. Trust me. I say that because I'm four years into a black Lab that came from a litter that Dokken researched for me. He took into account the fact that I'm into upland birds, waterfowl, shed antlers and have a young family at home.
The pup that he found for our family has turned into the kind of bird dog I never realized I could even own, and while she is a monster in the field, she's a softie at home. So much so, in fact, that my twin five-year-olds often use her as a pillow when it's time for the whole crew to wind down in the evening.
Recently, a buddy of mine decided it was time to get a Lab pup. He said his wife would only allow a chocolate, and so he set out to find a brown puppy. He ended up with a breeder who knew she was going to get an entire litter of chocolates. She also assured him the dogs came from hunting bloodlines and were everything he was looking for in a pup.
I warned him that she was breeding just for color and not necessarily intelligence and athleticism, but he went ahead and got the puppy from her anyway. Last fall, I hunted with him and his dog several times, and to put it bluntly, she is worthless as a bird dog. In her defense, she is a sweetheart, but she possesses no retrieving or hunting desire.
Now, this is not a knock on chocolates — there are plenty of high quality chocolate hunting Labs out there — or any other color in general, but it is a word of caution. If you focus solely on a specific color you'd better also devote serious time to researching the bloodlines.
Popular Lab colors like chocolate, and lately fox red and silver, generally command higher prices than blacks or yellows and that means some breeders are going to cash in with little consideration for performance. It's a common enough practice that any potential puppy buyer needs to be aware of it. Be especially wary of any breeder asking a high price tag because of a "rare" color.
Again, bloodlines are everything when it comes to getting a great dog and color by itself is nothing more than an aesthetic aspect of the dog. So, choose wisely.
Some of us are go-with-the-flow types who like what is popular, while others are contrarians. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum and when it comes to dogs, we want one that can hunt anything, is easy and fun to train, and can turn off the drive in the house and become another member of the family.
There are plenty of breeds that can do all of this and more, but if you really want to hedge your bets for finding the right fit for those needs, there is no better choice than a Labrador that sports a proven pedigree.