In the working and Service Dog world, the stocky, solid, sweet-natured Labrador Retriever is an iconic sight. They’re well-known not only for their prowess as a search and rescue K-9, detector dog and Service Dog, but also for their die-hard loyalty and friendship to all.
Labrador Retrievers: The Basics
Bred in Newfoundland from a stock of thick-furred, heavily-boned water dogs, the Labrador Retriever originated early in the 19th century as a sporting, hunting and working dog. The Labrador Retriever we know and love today began taking shape in the early 1900s as the breed caught the eye of fanciers and they began breeding to a working and conformation standard.
The Labrador Retriever is a sturdy, solid dog bred for one thing and one thing only: to pick things up, carry them around, and bring them back to his handler. While retrieving may be what the Labrador Retriever is bred for, this fleet-footed, muscular dog excels at nearly at task set to it. Extremely intelligent and trainable, the Labrador is quick-witted and a problem solver. Per the American Kennel Club breed standard, Labs should possess a “stable temperament,” weigh “55 to 75 pounds,” and be an “outgoing and devoted companion.”
Those qualities combine with a short, sleek, water-resistant coat, superb handler focus and the grit to keep working even when it’s tough to create a breed perfectly suited to assistance dog work.
Labrador Retrievers: The Puppy Stage
It’s important to remember that every well-trained Service Dog begins life like any other dog: as a puppy. Lab babies are high-energy, which lands them in some not so-good-situations with inexperienced owners. The Labrador’s calm demeanor and unshakable obedience are often touted, but what’s left out is the two-year kangaroo phase where they seem to have springs attached to their paws and chainsaws bent towards destruction in their mouths.
Labrador puppies chew. They mouth. They carry. They steal. They’re exceptionally happy, wiggly dogs who wish to share their joy at having ANYTHING, no matter how stinky, big, or smelly, in their mouths with anyone who happens to be near them. They’re exceptionally friendly and social dogs, which if not carefully managed, can morph into behaviors that will exclude them from service work.
While the Labrador Retriever puppy phase takes careful work to overcome, the resultant animal is a friend, partner, and confidant for life. A well-trained and socialized Labrador is a calm, steady and reliable presence in the face of any of life’s obstacles.
Labrador Retrievers: The Rest of the Story
Labs are large dogs and they shed year-round. They come in three colors: black, chocolate, and yellow. Each color has varying shades.
It’s been proven via decades of field trials that black coated dogs tend to be better field dogs, chocolate dogs have a calmer demeanor but often suffer from skin issues, and yellow-coated dogs fall somewhere in between. The jury is still out on whether that’s the case because black Labs are worked more in the field and chocolate Labs have been regulated to the job of “house pet” or if there are actual genetic ties to coat color and working ability. Because they tend to be seen as “friendlier” in the eyes of the public, yellow Labs tend to be favored as Service Dogs, but you’ll see a smattering of other colors as well.
They have a thick, dense, almost waterproof coat. They also possess a strong love of water. Throw a stick in a pond for your Lab to go after and they’ll be the happiest dog around. They’re tireless workers, especially when it comes to retrieving.
Labrador Retrievers excel at flyball, dock diving, tracking, search and rescue, field trials and hunting, assistance dog work and obedience. They’re stellar hiking partners. Fortunately for most Service Dog handlers, Labrador Retrievers are quite adaptable. Once out of the puppy phase, they’re flexible with their needs. If you need a day to simply relax and lounge, they’re happy to keep you company. Once you’re ready to face the world, they’ll always be by your side, shoring you up, no matter what you’re doing or where you’re going.
Labrador Retrievers: Selecting a Service Dog Candidate
Unfortunately, due to the popularity of the breed, backyard breeders have introduced a number of health concerns into the Labrador Retriever gene pool. Hip and elbow dysplasia are of a particular concern and any Service Dog candidate should have parents who possess OFA or PennHIP certifications. For an easy-to-understand explanation of hip/elbow certifications, check out this chart by Just Furkids. When selecting a Labrador puppy for Service Dog work, above all else, consider the temperament of the mother. It’s been shown over and over again that puppies are likely to inherit the demeanor of their momma. Ideally, mom (and dad!) would have ATTS temperament certifications or possess other titles/degrees that showcase she’s trainable, solid in distracting environments and sweet-natured.
The Labrador Retriever is an all-around good dog who, with proper puppyhood education and upbringing, will excel at any job. They have a decades-long history in the working dog arena and for most Service Dog programs, are a breed of choice. With a properly bred and trained Labrador Retriever by your side, you can expect reliable performance, lots of laughs, a steady temperament, tons of shedding and a friend for life.