The Ubiquitous Labrador Retriever

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"The Ubiquitous Labrador Retriever" was nominated for a 2003 Maxwell Award, given by the Dog Writers Association of America. It was first published in the July/Aug 2003 APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) Newsletter and later published in The Dog Trainer's Resource: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection, Dogwise Publishing, 2007.  

The Ubiquitous Labrador Retriever

Has Success Spoiled Our Number 1 Breed?

By Beverly Hebert

No doubt about it--Labrador retrievers still reign supreme as America’s most popular dog. Numbers don’t lie—according to American Kennel Club statistics, in 2002, there were 154,616 registered Labs.  In second and third place, 56,124 Golden Retrievers and 46,963 German Shepherds don’t even come close.  Therefore it may seem surprising that many APDT trainers who responded to an informal survey said they no longer include Labs among their top recommendations as family pets. 

Those trainers who still do place Labs high on their short list give the same reasons as the Lab loving public:  Driving the Labrador’s wide appeal are good looks and an easy care coat, high intelligence and responsiveness to training, an outgoing, affectionate nature, mellowness with other animals, plus rugged stamina and awesome retrieving instincts.  These same characteristics contribute to the breed’s ability to function as a versatile working dog fulfilling a variety of important roles in society.  Today the breed’s reputation as the ideal family and hunting dog is superimposed with the angelic image of Labs working as service assistance dogs and guide dogs for the blind, and as highly trained members of search and rescue teams.  In addition, law enforcement agencies have discovered that Labs make ideal bomb and drug detection dogs.  No other breed is more often in the media spotlight, portrayed as the dog for all seasons.

However, many pet dog trainers and shelter staff workers are seeing another side to the Labrador’s personality that leads them to wonder if the match between this high energy dog and today’s busy urban family is not a match made in Heaven after all.

  The Angelic Labrador Retriever’s “Evil Twin”—Demolition Devil Dog

“People get Labs because they want great family dogs but they wind up with the ‘dog from hell’ that has to be managed constantly,”  said trainer Sue Conklin while working with a case in point, an adolescent male named Brody.  Although Brody’s owner took him for long daily walks, he was too destructive to be trusted in the house, barked for hours if left alone, continued to jump up in spite of attempts to train him to sit politely for petting, and worst of all, would sometimes go a little wild, nipping at his owner’s clothes and grabbing at her with his paws.  Brody sounded like he could be the prototype for the hard-to live with Lab, mismatched with two working owners.    

Yet even having a seemingly ideal family situation wasn’t enough to keep a Lab named Tess out of harm’s way.  After obtaining her from a breeder they found on the internet when she was six weeks old, her owners say they tried hard to properly train her, first working with a trainer at home, then eventually sending her to a board and train facility as a last resort.  John Contreras worked out of their home and Paige was a stay-at-home mom, so all along puppy Tess got plenty of company and supervision. However, they found Tess difficult to potty train and she peed whenever she got excited. She also had to have expensive knee surgery when she was about six months old, followed by a long period of constant crating.  Paige says jumping up and play biting were things Tess never really outgrew and soon it became impossible for the children to play with her.  By the time she was 85 lbs. she was also too big and strong for Paige to handle, even on a Gentle Leader. John became the only one who could walk her, and one day after Tess threw what he felt was a “temper tantrum”  on leash, John came home and announced he was done with her.  Paige, tired of cleaning up the dog’s pee, agreed with relief.  Exit Tess.

Meanwhile in a near-by area in Long Beach, Cal. a pair of Labs named Maggie and Jake were wreaking another kind of havoc in the life of owner Karen Frakes.  Karen had found her pup, Maggie, difficult from the beginning.  “Every day when I came home from work, it was another disaster to clean up or fix or get repaired. There were times I thought, I’m going to have to give her away…before she was a year old I would just stress out over this everyday—then I thought, maybe part of her acting out is that she’s alone all day, so… I went to the pound, and there was this beautiful six  month old Lab, just about Maggie’s age. I brought him home and…they broke out the windows in my French door and ripped the redwood slats off the outside of my house.  When I had a computer installed, they ripped off the outside electrical wiring so I had to have an electrician come and put a steel box around it.  They dug a 4 ft. deep hole in my newly landscaped yard, ripped down small trees and bushes, would chew on everything—my antique furniture, my shoes, lots of clothes—they chewed a hole in my bathroom wall—it just went on forever and ever… One day when I was walking them, they saw another dog and were so excited-- they were going one way and I was going another and I tripped and broke my arm.  Then one night I opened the door and they rushed behind me and knocked me off the steps and I got a concussion and had to go to the hospital.”

Brody, Tess, Maggie and Jake’s behavior, not untypical of under-trained, under-exercised Labs, explains why so many with less committed and patient owners end up in shelters, usually during or shortly following adolescence.

“Most of the owners that I deal with are giving up their Labs because they don’t have time for them,” says Wyoming breed rescue volunteer Barb Walseth.  “We end up with a lot of Labs that have excess energy and the need to work, and owners want them to lie on the floor in front of the fireplace.  That doesn't come until much later with this breed.”

Trying to bridge the gap between owner expectations and the reality of rambunctious Labs has become a full time job for Joel Walton, author of “Labrador Retrievers for Dummies” and “Positive Puppy Training Works.”

“Labs or any breed bred to do certain kinds of work are generally going to be very active dogs…while most owners want a dog that doesn’t do anything at all, except wag his tail and look at them with love in his eyes and maybe walk with them, says Walton.  “When I’m talking to owners, I say, “When you got a puppy you didn’t want to learn to be a dog trainer, did you?  You already have a full time job and hobbies and a family--you probably even go places on vacation where you can’t take your dog with you, right?”

“The good news for dogs is, they’re pretty adaptable.  Labradors…have been bred to pay attention to human beings and follow their directions and that’s certainly a good start for a pet dog.  Also, there’s a vast (activity) range in Labradors and the most important thing people can do when they’re looking for a puppy is to get the right fit.  For those who want just a pet, that means a breeder whose goal is to produce good pets. If you go to a breeder who specializes in field trial champions, you’re going to get an Olympic athlete type of dog bred to have enough energy to do tremendously demanding work!”

Sally McCarthy Munson who breeds Shamrock Acres Labradors in Waunakee, Wisconsin, agrees that Labs from field lines tend to both act and look a bit different from Labs produced by conformation (bench/show dog) breeders. Munson says those from field backgrounds are a little more stream lined and lighter in weight, with longer legs and a bit narrower heads. “Most conformation dogs have some English bloodlines, and because of this, people call me and ask, “do you have American Labradors or English,” but that’s not the right question--what they should be saying is, ‘Do you have dogs with a field or with a show background’?”

Another thing to know, says Marianne Foote, owner of Winroc Labrador Retrievers and a director in the Labrador Retriever Club, “is the trend now is that everybody’s a specialist.  Basically we have three groups—the high performance field trial and obedience trial breeders and competitors who fall into the same category because they’re demanding a lot of energy, a lot of focus, and a lot of trainability; those are probably dogs that are labeled hyper by the average pet owner.  Then there are the straight conformation breeders… and third, there are the hunt test-dog show crosses.” 

It’s these field and show combination lines that McCarthy Munson says are most likely to produce the ideal Lab temperament—which she describes as a dog with enough brains, drive, and focus to succeed in sports like hunting or agility, but also a dog who can also turn that energy on and off and be very manageable around the house.   “These are my favorite litters!  We have pet people that get these dogs that may never hunt—but they enjoy hiking, water sports, or running with their dog.” 

However, it’s not safe to assume all show line Labs are couch potatoes either. Since low and high activity level and hyperactivity are all subjective terms, the best way someone can end up with the kind of puppy they want is to take a good long look at the parents.  It’s also wise to go to breeders that can give references from people who already have purchased dogs from them. 

Conversely, Juxi Burr of Albuquerque, New Mexico who has produced many champion Labradors, says the most likely way to end up with a problem puppy is to get one that’s been  randomly bred by a high volume breeder, the type who contributes to what Burr terms a disastrous overpopulation problem.

Marianne Foote concurs.  “Unfortunately, what’s happened is that everyone is blaming  (hyperactivity) on field trial dogs, but very few field breeders have constant litters, and most of their dogs go to those who are going to be competitive with them.  The phone calls that I get about behavior and soundness problems come from people who have bought dogs off the internet.  Of course, there may be some poor field line dogs too—but good field trial dogs can’t be out of control!  A good performance dog has to have a long attention span and ability to learn…but what I call the internet breeders, basically puppy mills breeding dogs for public consumption, are selecting dogs for color only.  It’s significant that phone requests I get about puppies are generally prefaced by color preference;  the public perception is that yellows are sweet and kind, and chocolate is rare, but neither stereotype is are true.  What I’m saying is not that dogs of these colors don’t carry these good qualities, but that Labs of any color can have an incorrect temperament if  they come from breedings based on color alone.”

An interesting corollary to the pet owner’s preference for yellow Labs is the fact that the majority of dogs with hunting or field trial titles are black.  According to Candlewood Kennels breeder Mary Howley, who has produced several field champions, this is because “those lines that carry the black coat color have traditionally been the most successful, so there is still the perception that the best competitive dogs are black.”  However, Howley says that in the past 25 years it has become possible to get equally good blood lines in dogs with yellow or chocolate coats. 

All this may be helpful information to pass along to clients planning to get a puppy, but what about those who are already in trouble with a Lab they may have bought from a puppy mill dealer?  Given that trainers are going to be meeting a lot of these folks, what help can they offer these pet owners and dogs like Brody, Tess, Maggie and Jake?

 Trainers to the Rescue--Keys to Successful Interventions

For starters, here is what three trainers who work with lots of Labradors think others should know about what makes them tick: 

  1. “What people need to remember is, this is an incredibly social breed!  They really want to be somebody’s dog.  When they’re not getting the attention they need, their response  is hyperactivity.  Other breeds may become shy or aloof, but Labradors get physically active, jumping up and knocking people down.  Also, they are so strong and physically tough that without early training, many owners lose the ability to control them at a very young age. Then if you combine big, strong and gregarious, you have a dog who is going to be dragging his owner around.”  --Connie Cleveland
  1. “Labs are very powerful and also easily stimulated—not so much prey driven, but just excited by other people and  dogs, so for almost every owner, I suggest the Gentle Leader head collar. For Labs, a lot of the solution lies with exercise.  That’s probably true of many breeds, but it’s phenomenally true of this breed.” -- Barbara Demarest: 
  1. The thing I find with the Labs is, where other active dogs may tend to pester you, dropping balls at you, Labs are more likely to body slam you.  --Sue Conklin

All of this is not to say that the same training methods that work with out of control Labs won’t work with other dogs as well, which brings us back full circle.

“Dogs are dogs are dogs,” says Joel Walton.  “If everyone approaches it that way, we know a lot about training dogs and about building proper relationships. If anybody says ‘yes, but chows, or yes, but Jack Russell’s, or yes, but field bred Labs’—just remember, dogs have more things in common than differences, and if you manage them correctly, they can die of old age in their homes.” 

Elements of a good training program begin with good interviews and histories.  For difficult to control dogs, the next steps usually include:

bulletA plan to meet the dog’s real needs, including companionship and mental stimulation.
bulletA management plan, for example, teaching owners what to do when visitors come. 
bulletUse of proper equipment—Crates, tethers, Gentle Leaders, etc.
bulletBasic obedience training—owners whose dogs will sit, stay and come when called have control over their dogs.
bulletNo Free Lunch-Say Please Program—This helps owners establish the right relationship and gain control over the dog without resorting to physical bullying.
bulletGentle mouth exercises to encourage bite inhibition.
bulletRewarding calm behavior.
bulletAn individually designed exercise program.

Possibilities for exercise programs include: Excursions to a dog park, doggy day care, or back yard play dates; stuffed Kongs for chewing; using treats to send the dog downstairs and recall him back upstairs; playing tug; retrieving and catch games.  Recalls in the back yard over a series of low cavaletti jumps (which can be purchased or hand made) will also provide a good work-out.  Teaching the dog some tricks and putting him through his paces can provide both mental and physical stimulation and relieve stress.  Short sessions comprised of fast sits, downs, and targeting (touching objects on cue) can also be helpful.

Fortunately, Brody’s trainer did begin by obtaining a detailed history, rather than proceeding on assumptions.  By carefully questioning the owner, and by observing and interacting with the dog, she discovered that his seemingly unprovoked episodes of wild grabbing and nipping was not aggressive attention seeking, but rather related to stress over having his neck or collar grabbed. “When he was a puppy, he was sometimes hooked up to a cable runner between posts-- and he would repeatedly get himself wrapped around the end post (tightening his collar) and panic and scream until somebody came out to get him.”  Desensitizing exercises helped Brody overcome his negative reaction to having his collar touched.  In addition, integrating Brody more into family life by placing him on a leash while his owners watched TV and allowing him to sleep in a crate in their bedroom, helped satisfy his needs for companionship.  At last report, Brody’s owner has been able to slowly allow him more freedom in the house and is happy with his progress. 

Maggie and Jake, who could have been voted most unlikely to have a happy outcome, are actually doing fine now.  They are still in their home and Karen, their owner,  was recently able to call her handy man to come and make repairs because they’re not destructive anymore.  Things started to turn around for this trio when Karen began working with a trainer.  “Every day, rain or shine, I had walked them religiously,” Karen recalled, “but Terry Long, my trainer, said that kind of walking just wasn’t enough for these dogs—they needed  to be able to run—so now they go to the dog park every day!  In addition to the chewing and digging problems, Jake also had some fearful behaviors that needed to be addressed.  “He seemed to be uncomfortable in his skin, poor little guy.  He was afraid of cars and of leads; when I’d take him for walks he would hyperventilate.”  Jake was put on medication, and the medication plus daily outings to the dog park have made all the difference. 

Tess also ended up safe and sound, but in a new home.  When it looked like she was headed for the shelter, in a fairy tale ending Tess was adopted by Erica Pintz,  her trainer from the boarding kennel.  Erica says she never had trouble handling Tess and ended up falling in love with her.  When Erica noticed that Tess was wetting herself in her sleep, she immediately took her to the vet, who found she had  a weak bladder and put her on a medication called Phenylpropanolamine. That solved the problem.  As for the temper tantrums on leash, Erica says, “What was happening was that on the way home from a walk, the dog would start to jump and bite at the owner  because she didn’t want to end the walk.  Her home was not a bad home, but because her owner couldn’t trust her enough, Tess was always stuck in the crate.  I never had that problem with her.  She had a history of knowing how to walk with me on a buckle collar and leash with treats—if she pulled, I would say “let’s go” and we’d change directions. She never had an opportunity to act inappropriately—if she did, it was handled the first time and that was the end of it.  Tess is about two now and she’s a great dog!  I have a blast taking her to the beach because she just dives in the waves and I love to see that!  She loves to retrieve too so I taught her to go fetch a toy when she wants to be petted; this was also to stop the biting and jumping up and it did!  It’s so funny--sometimes when I come home from work  before she even comes near me she goes and grabs her toy and then comes back to me for petting. She’s a really good dog!"  

Tess is also living proof that one person’s impossible owner surrender can metamorphose into another person’s best friend.

Joel Walton has evolved an amusing way of getting that important point over to potential puppy buyers right from the beginning.  “They come to visit and everyone is looking for the perfect family pet.  I tell them how much work they will have and I introduce them to a big black male who jumps up.  I watch to see if that freaks them out and I tell them, this is how your dog will be if you don’t have time to train him.  Then I put that dog up and I bring out another big black male  with good manners that sits politely for petting, and I tell them, this is what the dog can be like if he’s properly trained.  And after they chew on that awhile, I tell them that the first dog and this dog are the same fellow!” 

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The Lab through a Lover’s Eyes

(What It’s Like to Live With a Field Trial Champion) 

Connie Cleveland’s dog Ezra  is the only Labrador who is both an obedience and a field trial champion, but Connie didn’t start out being a fan of the breed.  “The only reason I got this Labrador was that my friend who bred him made me take him.  I had taught obedience classes for years and I’d see a lot of very unruly Labradors dragging their owners into obedience class at 9 to 15 months of age.  I told his breeder that I didn’t even like Labradors… and now I would never be without one.” 

“What I find unique about them--they are so much more unflappable than my other dogs—absolutely nothing bothers them—no new situation, no new dog, they just are so easy to assimilate into anything new.  My experience with Labs is that they get along with everybody and everything and nothing rocks their world—they take everything in stride.  Something else that just intrigues me about the Labrador—people will come to obedience classes and they know that I do some field work and they will say, could I come out and see if my dog will retrieve birds?  We’ll invite them out, and they can have a Labrador that was from somebody’s back yard, it was Jane bred to Max, and it doesn’t matter—the dog will pick up birds!  The hunting instinct in the Lab is so deep seated, I am just amazed at the number of Labradors that go ‘Well--Humph—never seen a bird before, but that’s OK, that’s what I was bred to do, I’ll pick it up’!” 

“Generally, because of my work schedule, we train in the morning, then from noon until about 9 p.m. I teach obedience classes and I run a boarding kennel and Ezra comes with me. I do hear people say, oh I could never have a field trial dog, they’re just too active—I think that’s a big misconception.  Most of my dogs from field trial backgrounds are active when there’s a purpose—retrieving birds is very exciting--but if we’re all sitting around the house relaxing, they’re not just busy for the sake of being busy.  I keep Ezra in shape because it prevents injury and increases stamina, not because I have to so he won’t be crazy.  He’s a wonderful house dog and the best bed dog I have—if it’s a cold night he’s the best smuggler in the world. 

“Ezra would not be as accomplished as he is if he were not an incredibly tractable, compliant dog.  The reasons that Labradors give the impression of being hard-headed is because they are physically insensitive.  We have bred the Labrador to go through ice and briars where no man would go to retrieve a duck, so you can’t easily hurt them, which in a way, is why they’re a good dog to have around kids.   People put a leash and buckle collar on them and try to keep them from pulling and when that Labrador doesn’t even notice, people say, look at the stubborn dog.  I would say, no, that’s not a stubborn dog, he’s just physically insensitive—I don’t think that they are emotionally insensitive.  If you’re willing to train in a way that says to the Labrador, “Hey, I’m here, I intend to be a part of your world,” I have found that Labradors will turn around and say ‘Well, glad to meet you, what would you like me to do for you’?”

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