For 25 years, the Labrador Retriever – or Lab – has remained the most popular dog in America. Known for friendliness, boundless energy, and a big heart, the Lab can make an extraordinary companion.
But did you know there are two types of Labradors? The American and the British. While the American Kennel Club (AKC) does not distinguish between American and British Labradors, there are a few distinctions between the two.
For many prospective dog owners – like yourself – you may not have a preference regarding the type of Labrador since a dog’s personality is less related to genetics and more to its environment. However, for those looking for something specific in their pet, breed might be quite important.
Why would you want a British Lab?
My family recently adopted a British Lab puppy named Jackson. They decided on a British versus an American Lab because these pups have a reputation for gentler temperament and an overall smaller size. They desired a versatile canine – one who could naturally play and wander around their farm, yet at the end of the day, chill out in front of a roaring fire. The British Lab was a perfect choice.
But despite these subtle differences, the British and American Labs are very similar. A Labrador is a Labrador. Ultimately, when deciding to adopt a dog, you must educate yourself about what you are looking for, then meet the dog to see if he or she is a good fit.
12-week old, British Labrador named Jackson. He likes to play, give kisses, and chew on sticks, but he also puts himself to bed in his crate when he’s too tired.
If you think a British Lab might be the companion you’re looking for, here are some things you will want to know before you adopt.
- 1. British Labradors Tend to Be Calmer than American Labs
- 2. British Labradors Make Excellent Hunting Dogs
- 3. British Labs Are Built Differently Than American Labs
- 4. British Labs Are Highly Motivated to Learn
- 5. British Labradors Have A Tendency Toward Obesity
- 6. Labradors Are Predisposed To Some Health Problems
- 7. Average Life Expectancy is 12 Years, But It May Be Increasing
- 8. Your Labrador Will Shed, Especially Seasonally
- 9. British Labs Can Perform Various Jobs
- 10. The Origin of the British Labrador Retriever
- 11. British Labs Love Kids
1. British Labradors Tend to Be Calmer than American Labs
British Labs are known for being calmer than their American counterparts. This is due to the traditional way in which Labradors in the UK are trained. In fact, the differences between English and American training, over generations of breeding, has led to a calmer temperament in British Labs and higher energy in American Labs.
In the UK, Labs are trained to stay calm through chaotic hunting trials. Hunters line the dogs up during the field trials and, one-by-one, call upon each dog to retrieve game – usually waterfowl. Meanwhile, all other dogs are to remain in their spots. The dogs who stay most composed, yet still retrieve the correct game, receive higher marks than their competition.
In the US, the goals of these trials are different. These trials are less about the calm exterior and more about collecting the most amount of game over the long period of time. These trainers are also more likely to use electric collars, which some argue has led to a more aggressive and energetic American Lab.
Breeders in both the US and the UK have selectively bred dogs to better accomplish their respective tasks.
Therefore American Labs tend to have higher energy, whereas British Labs are often quieter and more relaxed. If you’re looking for a dog who will primarily be an indoor pet, a British Lab might be a better fit for you.
Puppies as young as Jackson can start taking appropriate training courses. These involve desensitization to the sound of guns as well as an introduction to swimming and retrieval. Or you can simply start teaching your pup the fundamentals like sit and heel.
2. British Labradors Make Excellent Hunting Dogs
Labrador Retrievers are part of the American Kennel Club’s Sporting Group. Why? In addition to their build and natural affinity for hunting, Labradors have a double-lined coat: a waterproof outer layer, and a warm, insulating inner layer. Thus, Labs can hunt waterfowl in cold climates without excessive discomfort. These dogs also have large, webbed feet, so they are naturally good swimmers. These traits make the Labrador Retriever an excellent choice for both upland game and waterfowl.
This is true about both British and American Labs. However, depending on your hunting needs, you may have a preference toward a specific breed or the other.
If you are a more casual hunter, or you prefer a dog who will naturally respond better to your commands, a British Lab may be a better choice for you. These dogs are genetically predisposed, through generations of breeding, to wait for your command before retrieving any hunted animal. However, this genetic component should not replace the need for you to train your British Lab in the hunting sport.
Watch these British Labs remaining calm during steadiness training.
American Labs, on the other hand, want to get into the field quickly. They have been bred to hunt as much game as possible, so they typically have a headstrong, energetic personality and may be difficult to restrain on a leash during hunts. You might prefer this temperament for your hunt, but if you live in a small apartment without space to exercise your Lab, this might not be an appropriate fit.
Yet despite these general characteristics, it’s best to meet a specific dog and see whether you and your dog’s personalities match. Sometimes these dogs surprise you and act contrastingly to their specific breed type.
3. British Labs Are Built Differently Than American Labs
While all Labs typically come in three distinct colors (black, yellow, and chocolate), American and British Labs have some structural differences. Build characteristics, like temperament, are a result of breeding and hunting practices. Since American Labs have been bred to catch as many hunted animals as possible, they tend to be taller, lankier, have narrower faces, and have a more overall athletic build.
This is an American Lab. His face is larger, longer, and thinner than the blocky-faced British Lab. He is likely tall, thin, and agile. Perfectly athletic and energetic.
British Labs, on the other hand, tend to be a bit stockier. They have rounder heads, shorter legs, a more padded chest, and thicker coats and tails.
According to Nancy Anisfield, male and female American Labs range between 21.5 to 24.5 inches in height whereas their British counterparts are between 21.5 and 22.5 inches tall. As for weight, male British Labs typically weigh between 70 and 74 lbs, females weigh about 55 lbs. American Labs of both sexes typically weigh more than British Labs.
4. British Labs Are Highly Motivated to Learn
If you Google “easy-to-train dog breeds,” Labrador Retrievers will be on every list. They are America’s favorite dog for a reason.
But what makes a dog easy to train? Dogs that are easy to train are food motivated, enjoy humans, and have the ability to focus on the task at hand. Labs generally have all of these attributes.
Jackson is narrowly focused on treats and food. This trait will make him easier to train than another dog who is not food motivated. However, this love of food will also put him at risk for obesity.
Are British Labs easier to train than American Labs?
The answer isn’t unequivocally yes, because both types of Labs are highly motivated to learn. However, some breeders argue that British Labs have a slight advantage when it comes to ease of training.
As we have already discussed, British Labs tend to have calmer temperament than American Labs. Therefore, they usually are better able to focus during training sessions than American Labs. These dogs generally want to learn, making your job, as a pet-parent, much easier.
5. British Labradors Have A Tendency Toward Obesity
Like many humans in the developed world, canines are also becoming overweight. Labrador retrievers, however, seem to be especially prone to obesity.
In 2016, researchers found a genetic component related to Labrador obesity. Scientists gathered 310 Labrador pets and assistance dogs. Some were lean while others were obese. They tested 18 lean dogs and 15 obese ones, finding that many of the obese Labs had a deletion in their POMC gene. Although not every obese dog carried the mutation (and not every lean dog was without the mutation), the POMC gene deletion was, on average, associated with a higher weight of 2 kilograms.
While the physical differences between these American and British pooches are subtle, notice how this Chocolate Lab has a wide, blocky face. This is a tell-tale sign of a British Lab.
This mutation can change the weight, appetite, and behavior of dogs, making them more prone to food obsession and weight gain.
In addition, a high percentage of assistance dogs tested had the POMC mutation and subsequent obesity. Researchers hypothesized that dogs chosen for assistance roles were easy to train due to their tendency to be food motivated.
Scientists also screened non-Labrador breeds, and they found only Labs and Flat-Coated Retrievers (which are very similar to Labs) to have this specific POMC mutation. Interestingly, both of these breeds are descendants of the St. John’s Water Dog.
This study has estimated about a quarter of Labs to have this genetic mutation, and therefore they are more prone to food obsession and obesity.
I speculate that British Labs, being generally calmer and less hyperactive than American Labs, are especially prone to obesity due to these personality characteristics.
So, when looking to adopt a British Lab, keep this in mind. Your dog might be very food obsessed and require some creative solutions to curb his or her appetite.
6. Labradors Are Predisposed To Some Health Problems
While good breeders screen and attempt to avoid common genetic health problems of British Labs, there is still a risk that your dog may develop some of these conditions.
According to DogzHealth, Labrador Retrievers are predisposed to a variety of genetic illnesses:
- Joint problems (typically in the hips and elbows)
- Eye issues (cataracts and retinal dysplasia)
- Nervous system abnormalities (myopathy and epilepsy)
- Various circulatory conditions
- Cancer (particularly lymphosarcoma and mast cell tumors)
My advice – don’t avoid adopting the dog you love because you are worried about potential health problems (unless you cannot financially take care of them). Unfortunately, no matter what breed you decide upon, you will likely have to deal with your dog getting old and potentially sick.
Therefore, it is important that you ask health-related questions of your breeder or shelter. Then, take your dog to the vet regularly, and look for warning signs related to illness. Learn how to detect whether your dog is experiencing significant discomfort – and be there for your furry loved one when they need it most.
The health of your dog is your responsibility.
7. Average Life Expectancy is 12 Years, But It May Be Increasing
Veterinarians have determined, through various studies, that the average life expectancy of Labrador Retrievers (both American and English) is about 12 years. However, a current cohort of 39 Labs has shown it’s possible to live well beyond this average lifespan.
In fact, 90% of the present group reached the age of 12, and 28% reached over 15.6 years. 5 of the Labs even had vibrant lives despite being 16 or 17 years of age. Thus, the median age of this cohort increased from 12 to 14.01 years.
While this is just one small cohort study, it does suggest that these old Labs must be doing something right. Researchers suspect reaching these senior ages had less to do with genetics (British vs. American, mixed, etc.) and more to do with a healthy lifestyle.
According to this study, increasing your dog’s life requires decreasing fat and maintaining a lean body. This can be difficult if your dog has the POMC defect, but it is crucial to manage your dog’s weight and overall health. It can be a difference in years of your dog’s life – and a high-quality one at that.
A sweet senior Yellow Lab. Talk to your veterinarian about the best foods and strategies to keep your dog strong, lean, and healthy from puppyhood to his elderly years.
8. Your Labrador Will Shed, Especially Seasonally
If you’ve ever owned a Lab, or known anyone who has owned a Lab, you know that living with dog fur can be a constant struggle. But the truth is many dog breeds molt. Their coats change throughout the year due to temperature changes. Molting is an evolutionary trait that has assisted dogs when they were non-domesticated, outdoor, wild creatures.
Today, however, shedding is a nuisance.
During molting season – typically spring and fall in four-season climates – your dog’s coat completely changes to adapt to a new environment. In the spring, your dog sheds his or her thick winter coat for a sleeker, finer summer coat. And in autumn, the coat thickens again for the winter.
While your British Lab doesn’t need tons of grooming, it’s helpful (for you and your house) to do some during the molting seasons. This means removing the dead hair from your dog.
There are a variety of pet grooming devices available for removing the dead hair from your dog. However, I personally haven’t used any of these. Despite growing up with a Lab, we just suffered through his shedding without grooming. I wouldn’t advise this, as I now know that grooming your dog can make him/her feel much more comfortable.
Some Labrador owners have suggested the Zoom Groom, a safe and effective hair-removal device. Start at your dog’s head and work toward the tail. Talk to your vet or groomer about whether this tool – or another – is right for your pet!
Also, many owners, groomers, and veterinarians advise against shaving your Labrador Retriever, even in the hot summer months. Though it sounds counterintuitive, shaving your dog can actually lead to temperature de-regulation, sunburn, and increased risk for infection. Both layers of your Lab’s coat are designed to keep your dog cool and free from infectious material.
9. British Labs Can Perform Various Jobs
Because British Labs can be equally energetic and calm, easy to train, and sociable with humans, they are suitable for a variety of households. Whether you just want a pet, or you want a dog to perform a specific task, a British Lab is up for the challenge.
This officer is using his British Lab as a drug-sniffing assistant. Because these dogs have been bred for hunting, they have incredible noses, perfect for finding illegal substances.
Some typical British Lab “jobs” include:
- Show competitions
- Police detection dog
- Assistance dog
- Therapy dog
- Guide dogs
Some British Labs are even famous for their heroism.
Ever heard of Endal? Endal was a golden British Lab, awarded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Gold Medal in 2002 for his heroic efforts. His human, veteran Allan Parton, was disabled due to a car accident. He was wheelchair-bound and had memory damage. In 2001, Parton, as a pedestrian, was hit by a car, thrown from his wheelchair, and knocked unconscious. Luckily, Endal dragged him to safety, placed him on his side, wrapped him in a blanket, and later went to the hospital to call for help.
I also see the impact that British Labs make at my own hospital. As an RN on an Inpatient Hospice unit, I witness the power of great therapy dogs and their handlers on a daily basis. Many of these dogs are sweet, calm British Labs.
My patients and their families are always beaming widely after a visit from a therapy dog. They can’t wait to tell me about the cute dog they met.
With British Labs, you are likely to find companionship for not only you – but for your community.
10. The Origin of the British Labrador Retriever
The Labrador Retriever is the descendant of the St. John’s Water Dog.
The St. John’s Water Dog, now extinct, was first discovered in the 1500s in Newfoundland, Canada. The St. John’s Water Dog was known for its double-layer coat that kept the dog warm in the icy waters of Northern Canada. Eventually, these dogs, who were very hard-working and friendly, became useful for fishermen in the area.
Labrador Retrievers got their double-layer coat and webbed paws from their descendent, the St. John’s Water Dog. Though this breed is extinct, the St. John’s Water Dog lives on through Labradors and other popular breeds like the Golden Retriever.
In the 19th Century, many St. John’s Water Dogs were brought to Dorset, England. The gentry soon realized these dogs were well-suited for their favorite sport – waterfowl hunting.
The Earl of Malmesbury visited Dorset and was so impressed with these dogs and their fish-catching abilities that he imported his own and started breeding pure lines. Not long thereafter, the Earl donated some of his dogs to the 5th and 6th Dukes of Buccleuch.
Around this time, due to high taxes and lack of import incentive, the St. John’s Water Dog population greatly declined in Canada. The breed eventually went extinct, despite efforts from the Dukes of Buccleuch, in the 1980s.
But the Labrador under the Duke was still thriving. Although there are various theories, it’s not known why the Labrador Retriever name flourished. But in 1903, the breed became recognized by the UK Kennel Club, and by the US Kennel Club in 1917.
When Labs started being imported to the US, mainly because they were revered as hunting dogs in England, the split between American and British Labs began.
11. British Labs Love Kids
If you’re a parent looking for a dog, a British Lab could be a good fit for the family. Labs are very social, and they get bored easily without much human or dog interaction. That’s why they love hanging out with kids. Children like to play, and so do Labs. And eventually, they both get tired and like to snuggle, too.
Little Jackson is a child too! He needs lots of playtime, and he loves having toys and sticks in his mouth at all times. However, his sharp puppy teeth can leave a mark if you’re not careful!
But just because your British Lab has a natural affinity for children, he/she still must be trained in handling children – and children, too, should know how to approach and play with your dog.
For as lovely as Labs are, they communicate with their mouths – especially puppies. They love having hard toys in their mouths, and sometimes they bite. Therefore, it might be difficult to have a small child and a Labrador puppy in the same household.
British Labradors have versatile, amazing qualities. They are popular dogs because they are hard-working, gentle, and lovable. These dogs are suitable for a variety of environments.
But these characteristics only go so far. If you act with disinterest toward your dog, if you do not raise them well, your British Lab can become chaotic. It takes you to ensure British Labs are the best versions of themselves they can be.
They have to be trained, socialized, correctly fed, and loved.
And as a dog owner, where you adopt your dog matters. Your decision to buy from a breeder who is passionate about the tradition of British Labs will impact on the future of shelters, breeders, and the lineage of Labradors. If you are going with a breeder, choose one who cares for their animals by keeping their spaces clean, who doesn’t over-breed, and who only gives puppies to qualified families.
Let me know in the comments below if you’ve ever had a British Lab, if you currently have one, or if you are looking to adopt one!