We take a closer look at Britain's most popular gundog breed.
In 1836, seamen from the UK first came across labradors in Newfoundland, where they were being used to pull trailers full of logs and fish, and swim out in the icy waters to retrieve floats and nets for their fishermen owners.
Identifying a market for such a dog back in England – where duck shooting was particularly popular with the aristocracy and landed gentry – the seamen returned home with several dogs which were acquired by Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott, the 5th Duke of Buccleuch, and the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury.
For the next 50 years, the Duke continued to import dogs from Newfoundland and found use for them on his estates in the Scottish Borders. Meanwhile, the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury bred from the base stock first brought over in the 1830s – his dogs proving particularly useful for wildfowling on the south coast of Dorset.
The first two entries in the Duke of Buccleuch’s labrador retriever stud book were gifts made by Lord Malmesbury to the 6th Duke in 1880 whilst out shooting. The offspring from matings between these two dogs and a pair of the Duke’s bitches, which descended from dogs from the original imports, formed the basis of the renowned line of labradors which still exists today.
How many are registered in the UK:
Kennel Club records show that in 2018, of the 91,194 gundog breed puppies registered with the organisation, 36,526 of them were labradors. Indeed, for the last 29 years, the labrador retriever has claimed the top spot in the UK dog popularity stakes. Cocker spaniels were in second place in the gundog class with around 23,000 puppies registered.
Traits and characteristics:
The labrador is renowned for its intelligence, versatility, kind nature and excessive will to please. They are agile despite being of a large build and heavy body weight, and their sense of smell is outstanding. Today, the breed fills many roles – guide dogs, therapy dogs, detection dogs and gundogs to name a few.
Labradors come in many shapes, sizes and colours. Some are very broad in their build and heavy set, with strong, powerful limbs, bulky shoulders, chest and ribs. Whilst others can be very slender, and of a lighter build.
Common features for the breed include a well-defined skull, set back ears, and a dense, short coat. One of the breeds most distinctive features is the tail, which is thick at the base and tapers gently to the tip with a rounded appearance similar to that of an otter's tail.
The colours of the coat vary significantly from a light cream to black.
Approximately 10-12 years.
The most common conditions found in labradors include patellar luxation, hip and elbow dysplasia, obesity, Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) blindness and osteochondritis dissecans. The breed can also suffer occasionally from diabetes, distichiasis, muscular dystropy, etc.
Genetically testing/screening dogs before having puppies can help to reduce the risk of disorders, as can regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Feeding and nutrition – from the Chudleys' nutritionist:
“As a nutritionist, one designs a diet first and foremost to meet all the nutrient requirements to support a long, active and healthy life.
“For working breeds, fundamental nutrient requirements vary very little, if at all. There may be subtle trend differences between the breeds in terms of certain conditions that are more prevalent in one particular breed over another that may be helped by using appropriate functional nutrition. For example, labradors may benefit from receiving nutrients in their diet for added joint support.
“The key differences in nutrient requirements for working dogs is the duration and intensity of the work undertaken. The longer the workload the more energy your dog will require, so will therefore need to eat more food, and as a result the dog will get more of all other nutrients it requires, such as protein and vitamins.
“It is important to know where that energy needs to come from. Sprint work requires a diet consisting of more carbohydrate and some fat – a diet of around 22–25% protein and up to 14% fat is preferred – whereas a dog working long days on a moor will rely more on fat and fat reserves – a diet with 24%+ protein and 14%+ fat works best.
“Finally, when it comes to choosing the size of the piece of food, studies have proven that all breeds prefer a kibble of around 14–16mm in diameter.
“So, chose a diet to suit your dog’s workload and type, and one that provides those functional nutritional aspects as well.”
Why do labradors make good gundogs?
Since the introduction of breech loading guns, labradors have been favoured in the field of game shooting. The labrador is a calm breed by nature and, when time is invested in their training, they can make excellent gundogs. Their relaxed manner makes them well-suited as peg dogs, and for wildfowling and pigeon shooting.
Typically, labradors have a relatively large, soft mouth which makes picking-up large birds like pheasants or geese relatively easy over other working breeds. Their great sense of smell also gives them an advantage in finding game on their own in thick cover or retrieving runners.
The breed is renowned for getting on well with other dogs, too, which is vital on a shoot day.
Being great lovers of water, labradors are a highly favoured breed for the avid wildfowler, too, as retrieves on the foreshore or wetlands could mean swimming great distances and crossing through thick mud.
In conclusion, labradors are a great all-round breed, and when trained well are the perfect companion in the field, hence why the International Gundog League (IGL) Championships for retriever breeds has been dominated by labradors since its origin in 1900.