The Labrador Retriever is the most popular dog breed in the U.S., and with good reason. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful, trainable and lovable dog as the Lab. The breed’s wash-and-wear coat, keen intelligence and joyful outlook on life make this dog the first choice for many people who appreciate an outdoor lifestyle.
One of the Lab’s most valuable characteristics is its inborn talent as a hunting dog. Labs make great gun dogs, and are easily trained to locate and retrieve shot game. Looking at the Lab’s history, it’s easy to see why.
The Labrador Retriever most likely got its start in North America, when European fisherman settled in what is now the Canadian island province of Newfoundland. They brought hunting dogs with them from Europe to help capture game. These dogs were small enough to fit in the fisherman’s dories, and good enough swimmers to survive in the water that is so much a part of the Newfoundland environment.
In the 1830s, a Briton by the name of the Earl of Malmesbury began importing dogs from Newfoundland to England after first seeing these dogs accompanying Canadian fisherman in a harbor in Dorset. He took notice of the Canadian dogs’ stamina, skill in the water and devout loyalty. The British landed gentry valued these traits in hunting dogs, and the Earl knew they would appreciate this Canadian dog. The Earl and a few others who brought the Canadian dogs to England bred these early Labs both to each other and to other types of hunting dogs.
The Earl is also credited with giving the Lab its name. Before dubbing them the Labrador Retriever, these dogs were called a number of monikers, including St. John’s Newfoundland, Lesser Newfoundland and St. John’s dog.
In 1903, the Kennel Club officially recognized the Lab as a breed in the United Kingdom. A few years later, American sportsmen began importing British-bred Labs back into North America. The breed’s popularity as a hunting dog soon soared. In 1917, the American Kennel Club (AKC) officially recognized the Labrador Retriever. Since 1991, the Lab has been the most popular dog breed in the U.S.
One of the qualities that makes the Labrador Retriever so incredible is his versatility. The Lab is a working dog, bred to aid hunters in retrieving game in the field. He can work alongside his human for hours on end, day after day. He is also one of the most dedicated companions in the dog world, and is gentle and trustworthy around children. The Lab can be trained to aid the handicapped, and taught to find disaster victims in a pile of rubble. He can learn to seek out drugs stashed in suitcases and find bombs hidden in buildings. He can hike for hours, camp in rugged terrain and sprawl out on the couch, all in one weekend.
The Lab is also a beautiful dog. Medium in size, Labs have a distinctive, strongly built body. Both athletic and powerful, the Lab’s body helps him get the job done out in the field.
The Lab’s tail is also an important part of his anatomy. Known among breed experts as an “otter tail,” the Lab’s tail serves an important function. This heavy tail serves as a rudder for the dog when he’s swimming to retrieve game. The AKC breed standard describes this tail as “very thick at the base, and then tapers off.”
The breed’s coat is also special. The hair is straight and dense, with a soft, weather-resistant undercoat that protects the dog’s skin from water, cold weather and the kind of brush and bramble found in the field.
Labs come in three different colorations: black, yellow and chocolate. The black is a jet-black color. The yellow coloration in a Lab ranges from an orange-red to light cream. Yellow Labs often have darker shading on their ears, back, and under parts. Chocolate Labs can vary in shade from light to dark brown, and sport the least common of the three Lab colors.
The Labrador Retriever was designed to be a hunter’s companion, and the breed still maintains this proud distinction. Labs regularly prove their mettle as gun dogs, both in practical situations, and in hunting tests and trials, sanctioned by the AKC and other sporting dog organizations.
“Labrador Retrievers have been the number one most popular hunting breed for as long as I can remember, when you look at the AKC registry and the numbers of each breed registered,” says hunting dog trainer Tim Curry, of Central Oregon Sporting Dog in Bend, Ore. “We can look at the breed’s bid-ability and its amazing desire to please its owner. We train all breeds, and we breed not only Labradors but some of the best Pointers and German Shorthaired Pointers, but I don’t think there well ever be a breed more loyal that lives solely to please us than the Labrador Retriever!”
Given the Lab’s track record as a hunting dog, this breed is the perfect choice for fieldwork. Choosing the right individual Lab for this task is important, though, because not every Lab out there has what it takes to be a hunting dog. A Lab’s breeding is key when it comes to being born with strong hunting instincts.
Because of the Lab’s popularity, the breed has been subject to a lot of indiscriminate breeding, with little regard given to health and hunting instinct. Responsible breeders that care about the Lab’s hunting heritage work to maintain the breed’s hunting roots, breeding only dogs that show a propensity to hunt. If you want a Lab as a hunting companion, you need to make sure the dog’s parents were quality dogs with confirmed hunting instincts.
“If you’ve done your homework and narrowed down your search to good quality sire and dam from hunting and possibly even field trial lines, then your already on the right track,” says Curry.
When it comes to choosing a dog to work with, temperament and inborn abilities are key.
“The most important traits to look for are intelligence, biddability, instinct and desire,” says Curry.
Color doesn’t matter in a hunting Lab, but size might, according to Curry, who prefers dogs that are sized within the Lab’s official breed standards, maintained by the AKC and the United Kennel Club in the U.S.
“I even lean towards the smaller size within the standard,” he says. “Smaller dogs seam to be less prone to hip or shoulder injury. They can also often hunt longer because of better endurance.”
Curry says that this preference for smaller sized dogs also has a lot to do with the type of bird hunting he prefers: upland hunting and duck hunting.
“I’ve had great success with the average size dogs for this,” he says. “For someone wanting to hunt only large geese, a larger Lab might be preferred.”
Once you’ve chosen a good breeder and have your Lab puppy, begin socializing your pup in puppy kindergarten classes and by taking him places, once he’s up to date on his vaccinations. It’s important to expose your pup to a lot of different situations to help him feel secure and confident when he’s out and away from home.
Once your puppy is older enough, enrolling him in a basic obedience can help you both prepare for hunt training. You want your dog to learn to focus and to listen to your commands. Basic obedience teaches him these traits and helps set him up for success when his hunt training begins.
To get your young Lab involved in gun dog work, start out by joining a hunting dog club in your area. You can locate a group by checking with the AKC (www.akc.org) or the UKC (www.ukcdogs.com). You can find a trainer through one of these local clubs. A good trainer will help you teach both you and your dog what it takes to be a good hunting team. Once you get involved with a club, you may want to participate in hunt tests and field trials. These are not only a lot of fun, but they will help you evaluate your dog’s ability as a working gun dog.
Good breeding, early socialization and good training are important for a Lab with a career ahead of him as a gun dog. But according to Curry, the most important quality your Lab needs is inborn instinct. Without this, no amount of training will make your dog a good gun dog.
“It’s not so much what a Lab or any other hunting breed needs to know prior to training, but most importantly, what the dog needs to have been born with—and that is primarily instinct,” he says. “If a dog doesn’t have the instinct to want to get out, and search and hunt, or the desire required to make a good bird dog, then it doesn’t make much sense putting in time and money. If a gun dog has the instinct and desire, then training will pull him in and get him under control to hunt as part of a team.”