When the first Labrador breed standard was drawn up by the Labrador Retriever Club in 1916, it was designed with a working dog in mind. All the members of the Committee were shooting people, as in those days, all Labradors were primarily gundogs and only a few of them were shown. When we look at the first standard in detail it is easy to see just what our founders had in their minds. Until 1906 the Flatcoat [wavycoated] retriever had reigned supreme as THE retriever, but with the emergence into the field trial world of dogs like Munden Single, Flapper and Peter of Faskally, Labradors began to stake their claim. It is understandable therefore that in the description of General Appearance, comparisons were made with the Flatcoat. The Labrador is quite different from the Flatcoat, both in its shape, coat and the way it works in the field and our founders were insistent that these differences should be recognised.
Since the first standard was drawn up divisions in the breed have developed, with people choosing to have dogs which could specialise either as working gundogs or as showdogs. This has meant that whilst many of the working owners have bred specifically for dogs which had strong working abilities above all else, the majority of show owners have concentrated on the physical appearance. Some working owners have looked for a lighter framed dog, which might be faster than the heavier boned show dogs, whilst some of the show owners have preferred to put extra bone mass and weight on their dogs.
It has been proved that the natural working instincts, so valued by our predecessors, are still in the majority of the modern Labradors however they are bred and it only needs a skilled, knowledgeable handler to bring these to the fore. There are a few breeders in the UK who still aim to produce the original, dual purpose Labrador. Sadly however, because of the high standards and stiff competition required to produce either a Field Trial Champion or a Show Champion today it would be most unlikely that anyone, even the most dedicated, would find it possible to make up a modern British Dual Champion.
It is only since the 1950’s that the breed has produced specialised dogs, bred either as gundogs or show dogs and as a result, in later years there were some minor changes made to the original standard, the eye colour for example and additional information was added regarding size, but basically the standard survived intact. The present standard varies slightly in format , the original requirements all being retained, with extra detail included to conform with the Kennel Club’s policy of standardisation of breed standards throughout all recognised breeds.
When the Kennel Club requested that representatives of the breed should review the Labrador breed standard in 1986 there were fears in some quarters that our breed would be changed and that the Labrador as we know it might be in danger. Fortunately this did not happen and why should it? The Labrador which has served us so well for so many years cannot be improved upon.
With this background in mind, when we go through the standard in detail, you will understand why certain features are emphasised. The revised standard describes a strongly built, very active dog, broad and deep through the chest and rib and strong in loin and hindquarters. It should be good tempered, very agile with an excellent nose, soft mouth and keen love of water. The standard calls for an intelligent dog, keen and biddable with a strong will to please. It makes an adaptable and devoted companion and an ideal gundog.
The head should be well balanced with neat ears set well back, hanging close to the head. There should be a broad skull, with well defined stop, clean cut cheeks and medium length, powerful jaws. The length of the jaw should ideally be approximately equal to the length of the skull. The length of muzzle is important bearing in mind that the dog should be able to pick up and carry heavy game in the shooting field. The cheeks should be clean cut, without any excessive muscling which might cause the dog to damage its game by grasping it too firmly. The lovely gentle brown eyes should show intelligence and good temperament. The teeth should be strong and regular, with the top teeth slightly overlapping the bottom in what is described as a scissor bite.
The neck and shoulder placement is very important, it gives the dog the ability to take ground scent whilst seeking its game, then to gently pick it up and carry it back to its handler. The length and strength of the neck enables the dog to carry heavy game, holding it high off the ground when running back to the handler. If you could visualise or feel the bone structure, you should find a long sloping shoulder blade, which slopes down to a well angulated upper arm (humerus bone). These joints give the dog the ability to bend its head down to the ground whilst on the move and also act as shock absorbers when it is jumping over fences or working on rough ground. Without this correct angulation the dog would jar the joints and could cause injury. From the elbow to the ground the legs should be straight and well boned. Labradors need to have arched feet with well developed pads, many also have webbed feet, very useful when they are swimming.
The body should be strong with a well sprung, barrel shaped ribcage. The dog needs good heart and lung room to enable it to work tirelessly throughout a long day in the field. Whilst the rib needs to be of good depth and length, the loin should not be long or rangy. It should not be too short either, although a Labrador is described as a short coupled dog, the correct length of ribcage and loin does enable the dog to gallop freely.
The hindquarters are the powerhouse which propel the dog in movement. The standard requires a strong backline, not sloping towards the tail, and well developed hindquarters. The dog needs well muscled thighs with the stifle and hocks being well angulated to give it enough spring to jump a fence, even when carrying heavy game. This angulation also acts as the required rear shock absorbers to help prevent injury.
The coat and tail are very special features of the breed. The origins of the Labrador are based in the fishing regions of Newfoundland, where the dogs were required to work in icy waters, so a coat was developed which could deal with these harsh conditions. Labradors are required to have a dense, double coat, consisting of a waterproof top coat, which feels hard to the touch and which repels water. This together with the thick warm undercoat protects the dog, not only in icy water, but also in the dense woodland or thick cover in which it might have to work hunting game.
The tail is described as an otter tail, being thick at the base and tapering towards the tip similar to an otter. It should be of medium length, covered with the same dense double coat and should not curl over the back. The tail is a vital part of the Labrador’s equipment; it acts as a counter balance and braking device when the dog is on the move or changing direction, it is a rudder in water and is the essential Labrador signal of happiness. Labradors the world over continuously wag their tails, whether they are family pets going for a walk, showdogs performing in the ring, gundogs merrily working in the shooting field, police or army snifferdogs, or assistance dogs helping the blind or disabled.
There are three coat colours, black, yellow or chocolate (liver). The yellow colour covers all shades from pale cream through to fox red. The coat should be of solid colour, although in yellows there is often slight shading over the ‘saddle’ area and underparts. Occasionally, blacks may have a small white flash on the chest, this is permissible, although in the show ring is not desirable. Height is specified as 56 to 57cm [22 to 22 ½ inches] to the shoulder in males, females 1cm [½ inch] less.
In the showring judges will look for a well balanced dog of good overall proportions. It should be bright and outgoing, with no shyness or aggression. Movement should be straight, true and purposeful, with the dog using its strength and power to cover the ground freely.
I hope it is clear, from the way I have gone through the standard, that each and every feature of a Labrador is there for a very good reason, the shape and temperament which identifies the breed in all its forms has developed entirely because at the beginning of the nineteenth century country gentlemen wanted a dog which would be of assistance in the shooting field whilst also being a useful and pleasant companion around the home. The work they put into developing the modern Labrador has given us the wonderful breed which is now known and loved throughout the world.
Original abridged article appeared in the 1985 Year Book