8 Surprising Facts About Labrador Retrievers

A yellow lab, chocolate lab, and black lab standing on a tree stump in a field
lizcen / Getty Images

The Labrador retriever is the most popular dog in the United States and has held the spot since 1991. The breed is famous for its pleasant nature, loyalty, and helpful disposition. Most are family pets, but many work as search-and-rescue, hunting, fishing, and service dogs.

Because of their popularity, they also end up in a lot of animal shelters or rescues. If you decide one is right for you, check there first.

Here are a few things you might not know about this well-loved breed.

1. They Aren't From Labrador

Labradors aren't from Labrador, Canada. Instead, the breed originated south of Labrador, on the island of Newfoundland. There, local water dogs bred with Newfoundland dogs. This crossbreeding resulted in the St. John's water dog, a now-extinct breed that was black with white markings on its face. These dogs are the ancestral strain of Labradors. Outcrossing them with other dogs and refinements resulted in what we know today as the Labrador retriever.

2. The Earl of Malmesbury Named the Breed

From Newfoundland, the breed spread to England, starting with the second Earl of Malmesbury. He brought the first St. John’s dogs to England in the early 1800s. His son, the third Earl of Malmesbury, always called his dogs Labradors. The name stuck even when the breed regained popularity in North America. All chocolate Labradors can be traced back to a dog that the third Earl of Malmesbury gave to the sixth Duke of Buccleuch.

3. They Almost Went Extinct

Before the Labrador gained fame, the breed nearly disappeared.

In Newfoundland, the government wanted people to raise sheep. They limited families to only one dog per household, and dog owners had to pay a tax.

The government imposed higher taxes on female dogs, which led to the culling of female puppies from litters. By the 1880s, the breed was nearly gone from Canada. These laws led to the eventual extinction of the St. John's water dog in the 1980s.

Labradors persisted in England, where it was becoming favored as a hunting and family dog. The Kennel Club recognized Labrador retrievers in 1903, and the American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1917.

4. They Are Built for Water

black Labrador retriever swimming in water, surface level view showing webbed paw
George Karbus Photography / Getty Images

The Labrador is famous for its love of water. They initially helped fishers by fetching nets and rope or retrieving fish from the icy sea.

Labrador retrievers are known for the webbed-feet it uses to swim with, but most dogs have some webbing between their toes. What makes the Labrador's feet unique is significant amounts of webbing combined with their big feet. They use their flattened, otter-like tail for balance and to steer while swimming.

5. They Are Practically Waterproof

What makes Labradors ready for even the most chilly water is the double coat that they shed twice each year.

The breed has a distinctive coat made of an outer layer of dense, straight, longer hairs and an under layer of soft, downy-like fur that acts as an insulating layer. This undercoat traps heat and keeps water out as it allows the dog’s natural oils to repel water, making the coat virtually waterproof.

6. They Come in More Than Three Colors

Labrador at Sunset in the Spring
Jason Hohnberger / Getty Images

Silver Labradors are chocolate Labradors with a dilution gene that causes their coat to be a lighter color. Black and yellow dogs may also have these dilution genes. In that case, the color is called charcoal or champagne.

Silver Labradors are controversial among breeders, and no kennel clubs recognize it as an acceptable color. Many believe that the variation isn't a natural mutation but is instead evidence of crossbreeding. Silver owners deny this charge. Some breeders passionately advocate for them to be recognized and allowed to compete in shows.

7. Yellow Coats Include a Fox-Red Variant

An Outdoor Portrait of a Fox-Red Labrador Retriever in Autumn
Jase Kuusisto / Getty Images

Fox-red is an unusual color for modern Labradors but not a separately recognized color for the breed. Breed standards regard fox-red as a very dark version of yellow. These dark yellow or chestnut red individuals were once more common. During the 20th century, breeders began to breed light blonde dogs to meet the demand for lighter-colored dogs. This preferential breeding led to fox-red becoming rare. Lines produced for hunting dogs have kept this color variation alive.

8. English and American Labradors Are the Same Breed

American Lab on the left with narrower face and slighter body. English lab on right with wider face and snout.

Left: Kevin Rodriguez Ortiz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Right: JespahJoy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There is only one breed of Labrador retriever, though individuals can have different body shapes based on their purpose. English Labradors are also called show Labradors and have a stockier build, heavier bones, broader skulls with shorter muzzles, and a thick, otter-like tail. The American Labradors are also called field Labradors. With longer legs, a narrow, more pointed muzzle, and an athletic body, American Labradors look like a different breed. They also tend to be more energetic than English Labradors. Both types are available in England as well as North America.