The Labrador Retriever breed is in danger of suffering the division of the show dog and the working dog. It would be very sad if that came to pass but there are whisperings that breeders in America are already preparing to follow official channels in order to separate the two.
How is it that the ‘dual purpose’ Labrador has been so undermined? Both sides have a great deal to answer for, the conformation fraternity for developing the breed into a gross, largely unangulated slob that is lacking the ability to move with the reach and drive required, and the field trial fraternity for turning it into a racing machine with speed the main consideration and no regard at all for breed type!
The Labrador Retriever breed standard was written about a working retriever, moderate in every way, strongly made with great stamina and the ability to work as a team member in unison with his human companion. Therefore his temperament is crucial, he needs to be very attentive, biddable and tractable, able to work with both human and canine companions readily and without fuss.
One of the greatest problems is the fact that the breeders have lost touch with what a Labrador really does when he is at work. The standard describes a dog best suited to performing the functions of scenting and retrieving, both requiring a well made front to give the dog the ability to freely move the head and neck as necessary to follow scent cones. When retrieving, the dog must have the ability to pick up and carry game with ease, once again he needs to have freedom of movement and great strength of underjaw and neck and shoulders.
The commonly held belief that running dogs in the paddock means that they are ‘workers’ is such a myth as to be laughable. The worker must be able to pace himself, he must have stamina, initiative, courage and the ability to co operate with his handler at all times. He may have to carry game as large as a fox. It may be necessary to carry that fox through undergrowth, over very harsh terrain and jump over fences or fallen logs with that weight in his mouth. He must have a tender mouth, but have the strength in neck and under jaw to not damage the game as he carries it back to his handler. There is a vast difference between fetching a ball and hunting and retrieving game. This dog is a natural water dog, he swims with ease and is as at home in the water as he is on the land. The unfortunate part is that most breeders have never taken the trouble to see the actual working dog function, and therefore have no perception of the interpretation of the breed standard.
An area of great concern is the temperament of the Labrador. Assessment of temperament is very difficult until the dog reaches an advanced stage of training. There is a marked problem observed in dogs bred and not worked for generations, they have a very short attention span and are too easily distracted from their work. The temperament may seem good socially but is rarely tested unless some form of training is undertaken, unfortunately the sad fact of the matter is that most dogs are never trained at all. Many dogs are kept in order to be paraded at the show once a week and spend the rest of the week in a kennel, they are fed and watered, but have little opportunity to interact with their humans. After neglecting the selection process for bidability and trainability in breeding stock for a few generations, it is very easy to lose.
The very qualities that make this special breed such a desirable companion are those the make him a wonderful hunting mate, his penchant for working with and for his human partner, not for himself, are the manifestation of the unique quality of the Labrador temperament. This very quality can so easily be directed to make him a co-operative family member. His excellent communication skills are what endear him to the role of ‘people’ dog. His cognisance of the needs of those around him is remarkable and he will alter his behaviour to suit the needs of those he is with, be they frail aged, very young children or boisterous teens.
The ideal Labrador has an on / off switch. He will rest at your feet for hours while you read or work, but pick up his lead or the car keys and he lights up like a beacon and is full of beans, ready to participate in what ever you have in mind, a walk or a swim or a day’s work in the field.
May this very special breed never suffer the fate of so many working breeds and be divided by those with a pedantic bent for either the show ring or the field, keep this wonderful dual purpose dog as he should be, as described by the breed standard written by those many years ago about the real Labrador Retriever.