Posts Tagged ‘Labrador retriever’


I’ve been visiting with relatives who have come up from the Southland.  Cammie and Bear came up form Baton Rouge.

Bear is a nice, thick-coated Labrador.  A hard core water dog, who went swimming today in 35 degree weather.




And Rhodie and Willie from North Carolina. Cammie and Rhodie are litter sisters.


And Willie– of course.






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A giant flabador!


I don’t know him. I think he’s a free-ramblin’ man who was just passin’ through.

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Hailstone Labradors

The dogs above are two purebred Labradors, and the white spots you see on the coats are not the result of the distortion or aging of the photo.

They actually are black dogs with what might be called “reverse Dalmatian spots.”

This coloration is quite rare in Labradors, and because of its rarity, no one knows its genetic basis. It just occasionally pops up in Labrador litters.

Countess Howe, one of the major forces behind the modern Labrador retriever breed, called this color “hailstone.

A very similar color also pops up in greyhounds, where it is much more common.

I have tongue-in-cheek called this coloration “ich” (pronounced “ick.”)

If you don’t know what “ich” refers to, well, there is a condition that occurs in freshwater fish called “ich.”

The official name for the disease is called Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, but most aquarists shorten it to “ich.” It is also called “white spot disease,” because it is easily recognized when one sees small white flecks on the gills and body of an aquarium fish.

The disease is caused by a protozoan called Ichthyopthirius that establishes itself on the body of the fish. Each white fleck is actually where a protozoan has set up a residence. These parasites wind up damaging so much of the skin and gill tissue that the mortality rate from fish affected by the disorder is quite high.

Of course, these dogs aren’t affected by anything other than some novel color phase.

It just happens to remind me of the deadly fish disease.

However, looking at these Labradors, I’m sure many will be reminded of the old cartoon 101 Dalmatians, where at one point, the Dalmatians try to sneak past Cruella de Vil and her minions, Horace and Jasper, by rolling themselves in soot and trying to pass themselves off as Labradors. Everything goes according to plan, until melting snow hits the dogs’ coats, revealing that they are Dalmatians and not Labradors.

(BTW, if you can’t tell the difference between a Labrador and a Dalmatian that is dyed black, there is no hope for you!).


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One of the great shibboleths in the dog world is that there is a creature known as the “responsible breeder.”

Each person has a definition about what one is, but for many years, the biggest defining point was the adherence to blood purity cult. Usually this would be mixed in with all the delusions of preservation, as well as the delusion of improvement.*

The unfortunate thing is none of these things have much to do with the real world.

In the real world, crossbreeding isn’t evil. It’s innovation.

Take this nice post by Suzanne Phillips over at the Hoof &Paw blog.

In her part of Oregon, it’s not unusual for someone to breed this:

Photo by Suzanne Phillips.

Photo from Suzanne Phillips.

This dog is a German short-haired pointer/Labrador retriever cross. It’s basically a purposely-bred cross that mixes the ruggedly versatile German HPR wit the always popular, hard driving Labrador. Suzanne mentions that when a friend of hers bred such a cross people drove from hundreds of miles to pick up one.

Such is the reputation of this cross.

She mentions another variant of the cross in the post as well. This time the retriever in question is a Chesapeake, but she has been bred to a German shorthair.

Photo by Suzanne Phillips.

Photo from Suzanne Phillips.

It’s hard for anyone in that old way of thinking to say that these were not well-bred animals.

Chesapeakes, Labs, and German shorthairs are all very useful animals. Not a single one of them was created through maintaining closed registries until very recently.

And even now, many people who want a useful dog don’t pay much attention to the old blood purity rules.

That’s because these blood purity rules are way outside of the average person’s experience with dogs. Almost no one owns a dog that is very tightly bred, and virtually everyone in the public would be repulsed by the idea.

Many people talk about the reason why the American Kennel Club is in such terrible financial straight. Animal rights activist get the blame. The puppy mill paper mills get their share, too.

But I think the real problem is that the American Kennel Club, though it is headquartered in the United States and always has been, is really a foreign institution.

Its values were imported from Great Britain at the height of its imperialist glory. As strange as it sounds today, most Americans were very anti-British during most the nineteenth century. Britain had burned down our capital. It allowed the Confederacy to have the delusion that it was on the side of their rebellion.  It was also a major competitor in the Northwest. Plus, tons of Americans were Irish famine refugees.

As America grew wealthier, wealthy and upper middle class Americans began to emulate the British Empire. Some of the first retriever trials in America were held on Long Island. Labradors were the breed of choice, and they were run almost exactly as they were in the mother country.

Meanwhile, American market duck hunters were blasting away with punt guns and heavy shotguns at vast flocks waterfowl. Their hardy “Chesapeake duck dogs,” water spaniels, and retrieving setters were earning their money. The backwoods market hunters were treeing grouse and turkeys with curs and feists. And very few of these people gave a rat’s behind about the pedigree of the dog.

In fact, most Americans didn’t care for this nonsense at all. The most common dog in much of the country was the generalist farm collie, usually called “a shepherd,” which did some light herding work and hunted everything it was asked to.

None of these dog were maintained within a concept of a “fancy.” There might be shows for foxhounds, coonhounds, and beagles, but every single dog in those shows was also a performance hound. And none of these dogs was kept in a true closed registry, and even now, pack hounds are still crossed on a routine basis.

But they are outside the AKC, and they are also outside the UKC.

Americans bred dogs to perform. In the early days of settlement, vast numbers of dogs couldn’t be imported from Europe. Our dog culture became based upon what can survive and what could do multiple tasks well.

The British dog culture was about specialization and arbitrarily classifying things based upon color and coat and size.

It became well-established among “learned circles” that American dogs, like our livestock, were in desperate need of improvement. From the 1870’s onward, there has been attempt to bring America the glories of canine improvement through closed registry breeding.

And it’s been a colossal failure.

It came closest to success in the middle to late part of the twentieth century, when the burgeoning middle class that had grown up out of the Second World War began to own purebred dogs as status symbol. It’s at this time that my own family got their first AKC dog, a registered rough collie named “Cam.”  Cam produced more than a few litters of collie-foxhounds, which were then quite in demand in West Virginia as varmint dogs.

I’ve noticed that when most laypeople watch dog shows, they only want their favorite breeds to win. They want to see the golden retriever go BIS at Westminster. They don’t care about the rare breeds. They are curiosities, novelties to be looked as if one were looking artifacts in a museum.

And that may be too charitable for some breeds.

I’m sure the untrained eye sees many of the really exaggerated dogs as creatures best belong in a freak show.

And of course, one really can’t argue with them.

Many progressive people rightly complain about how Americans have never adopted certain European ideals, but the notion of a national kennel registry to tell us how to breed dogs is one I’m glad we’ve never fully accepted.

So long as a dog fancy remains this insular, very foreign, and reactionary clique, the American people are going to ignore what these people say.

And buy gun dogs like these.

And doodles.

And Texas heelers.

After all, this culture produces good dogs.

And the dog fancy continues to produce freaks– many of which are unhealthy and very hard to care for.

This is how market economies work. There is failure, and there is success. The dog fancy has been a failure in the United States– and our dogs stand a much better chance because of it.


*There will be a post on this at some point,

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Photo from Robert Milner's Retriever Training Site. The golden is a Holway.

Photo from Robert Milner’s Retriever Training Site. The golden is a Holway.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has come and gone, and like most years, I thought we’d have no meaningful discussion about how dogs might be encouraging people to breed and select for unhealthy attributes in dogs.

However, this year, there is a bit of a viral story going out about how preferred phenotype in the show ring might be deterimental to a dog. But unfortunately, it’s very low hanging fruit.

The story started with this pretty good post from My Slim Doggy  about how fat the Westminster Labradors actually are. And I should note that yes, these dogs are fat, and the behavior of the dog show apologist set on that page is abominable. 

That’s a story in itself, but it’s not the absolute worst case I can think of.

The thing about Labradors is that they are the most popular breed in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and they are probably the most common “breed dog” in the world today. They are also arguably among the most useful dogs, for they not only are used for retrieving game, they are now the most common guide dog breed. They also great sniffer dogs, and they use to assist people in wheelchairs. There are many, many things this breed can do, and because the typical member of this breed is also among the most docile of dogs, they are very, very popular as family pets.

As a result, they exist in many, many different lines and what might be called “sub-breeds.” There so many different types of Labrador that it would take me too long to describe them all to you, and then I’d probably miss a bunch.

Labradors that are bred for the show ring are an extreme minority of the breed. And as a result, what happens in the ring really does not affect the survival of the breed as a whole.

And not only that, even if a Labrador has a tendency toward portliness, this problem can be easily remedied through a regime of diet and exercise.

So if the biggest problem that Labradors have from being shown is that the show specimens are a often quite fat, this is not such a big deal.

And the simple reality is that the Labrador breed is not a prisoner to the show culture. You can easily get a Labrador that is not a “labrabeef.” And it’s not that hard.

The real scandal is the countless breeds that are.

Within that Sporting group, there is actually very good example of a dog that has essentially been doomed to extinction through selection for a very exaggerated phenotype.

Unlike the Lab, it’s not a very common dog at all. In fact, unless you’re a dog nerd like me, you may have never heard of it.

The breed I’m talking about is the Sussex spaniel.

The Sussex spaniel is doomed. It cannot be saved. You can write it on a rock. It’s done.

The Sussex spaniel is the last survivor of a stupid fad that swept the early British dog fancy– the desire to breed extreme dwarfism in spaniels.

Sussex spaniel

The Sussex spaniel has an illustrious history as a land spaniel in the South of England, but then dog shows got their mitts on them and things haven’t been the same since.

The two most common fancy spaniels in the early British fancy were field spaniels (which were usually black or black roan) and the Sussex, which was liver. Both of these dogs are ancestral to the two breeds of cocker spaniel that exist today, both of which descend from a Sussex/field cross named Obo. Before that, all small sporting land spaniels were call “cockers” as a generic term.

The fad was to breed them as short-legged as possible, and in some situations while doing beating on relatively flat ground and in heavy cover, a dwarf spaniel would have have been of some use.

But the twentieth century has largely supplanted both the field and Sussex as gun dogs. English working cockers and springers are the sporting spaniels of the UK, and in the US, main sporting spaniel is the working English springer. Welsh springers are still worked, and they have a lot going for them, too. And if the right celebrity were to own one, they could suddenly experience a popularity rise that they might not be able to handle.

And there are even working strains Clumber spaniel, which have bred out most of the exaggerated mass and loose eyelids that you see in the ring.

Field spaniels have been saved through the addition of English springer blood, and they are no longer dwarfs.

But the Sussex remains.

Col. David Hancock writes about the fate of the Sussex:

The history of the breed standard of the Sussex Spaniel tells you a great deal about show gundog fanciers. The standard in use in 1879 didn’t include words like massive, brows and haw or mention a rolling gait. In 1890, in came ‘fairly heavy brows’, a ‘rather massive’ appearance and ‘not showing the haw overmuch’. In the 1920s, in came ‘brows frowning’, a ‘massive’ appearance and ‘no sign of waistiness’ in the body. These words were approved by the KC, the ratifiers of all breed standards. In 1890 the breed’s neck had to be ‘rather short’; from the 1920s it had to have a long neck – in the same breed! The need for this breed to walk with a rolling gait is, relative to the long history of this admirable little gundog breed, relatively recent. Here is a breed of sporting spaniel, developed by real gundog men,subsequently, with the connivance of the KC, altered to suit show dog people, most of whom never work their dogs. It is a sorry tale, with echoes in other breeds.

The so-called ‘Chocolate Drop’ spaniels of Richard Mace have their admirers in the field. Originating in a cross between a working Cocker and a Sussex Spaniel, they are seriously effective working spaniels, strong, biddable and determined. In the last ten years, pedigree Sussex Spaniels have only been registered in these numbers: 89, 98, 70, 82, 68, 79, 77, 74, 61 and most recently 56. What would you want? A dying breed prized for its unique rolling gait, characteristic frown and waistline-free torso? Or a proven worker benefiting from a blend of blood? Gundog breeds which lose their working role soon lose their working ability and then the patronage of the shooting fraternity. I see much to admire in the Sussex Spaniel and long for a wider employment for them in the field.

I would love it if those “Chocolate Drop” spaniels became part of the Sussex breed and reinvigorated it.

But that is not going to happen.

Having written about Sussex spaniels before, I have rarely met with more obtuse dog fanciers than those associated with Sussex spaniels.

Too many of them are part of the blood purity cult, and the breed is also caught up in the double speak of “dual purpose” breeding that I so often encounter in gun dogs.

You will often hear people who have a rare gun dog breed brag about how their breed hasn’t split in type like golden and Labrador retrievers have.

The reason why golden and Labrador retriever have split so much is that they are actually used quite a bit, and the dog shows require parts of the phenotype that are largely antithetical to efficient movement on the land or water. The excessive coat in show goldens makes them easily bogged in the water, and the lack of soundness in many show Labs makes them easily worn out while doing retrieves.

These minority breeds, though, exist within a culture that is obsessed with the Delusion of Preservation.

Part of that delusion isn’t that you must keep the breed pure at all costs.  Within rare kennel club-recognized breeds, there is also a delusion that you have to show in order to breed. The standard make the breed unique, and if you really want to preserve it, you have to test it against the standard.

The problem with standards is they are like scripture:

They are written by fallible people and by devious people, and they are then interpreted by fallible and devious people.

So these very rare breeds become trapped in the show culture.

And though people are using the dogs at tests and working events, they aren’t selecting for those traits alone.

But working springers and cockers are.

And there is absolutely no way that Sussex spaniels can survive this situation.

No redneck hunter is going to go out and buy a Sussex when he can get a springer from working lines for third to half the cos and no waiting list.

But Sussex spaniel people are still trapped in the hope that it might change.

But it can’t.

This is now a show dog that is trying to be preserved within the show system itself.   Fewer and fewer people want this dog, and fewer people know that it even exists.

And whatever the merits the breed might have, it’s just not going to make it.

And then you have its very real problems as a breed:

Not only is it the gun dog with the rolling gait, it is also the only gun dog I know of that has problems with its discs (a common dachshund malady) and a very high incidence of hip dysplasia– 41. 5 % are affected according to the OFA.

Would a serious gun dog person go out of his or her way to get a dog with those sort of structural problems?

They would take their chances trying to slim down a fat Lab!

Obesity in show Labradors is discussion worth having, but it’s not the biggest problem with dog shows.

Labradors are not trapped. They are thriving as no other breed ever has.

But the dog fancy really is destroying breeds

It’s just that it’s not destroying those breeds that have a life outside of the fancy.

With this going on with breeds like the Sussex spaniel, it makes all the attention we’re giving to obese Labradors seem a bit trivial.

Dog shows really aren’t that important to the breed population of Labrador retrievers, but they are the main constraint facing the Sussex spaniel.

And this is where the Sussex will go extinct.

I don’t know when, but it is almost certainly going to happen.

It’s trapped, and no one is saying anything.











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This painting is callled “The Shooting Party– Ranton Abbey” by Sir Francis Grant.   It dates to about 1840, and it depicts Whig Party elites, including the then prime minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Ranton Abbey was a shooting estate in Staffordshire owned by Earl of Lichfield. These preserves were playgrounds for the nobility, where they pretended that they are somehow the great hunting people like their Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman ancestors.

The painting of interest because it shows the division of labor among canines at the shoot.

The spaniels are obvious, and the very closely resemble modern cocker spaniels.

At a shoot, their job is to push out the game to the guns. They might occasionally retrieve, but their main job is to “spring” the birds. (Origin of the term “springer” spaniel.)

The retrievers, though, are very different from what we might expect. The dog on the left is a black and tan and is something like a proto-wavy-coated retriever or a collie cross. Both of these dogs were used as retrievers. The dog on the left, with the Caucasus-type common pheasant in its mouth, is pretty well-known to golden retriever historians because it shows a yellow retriever in the act of retrieving. It looks somewhat golden retriever, though maybe a bit houndish compared to any modern breed of retrievers.

The retriever’s job at a shoot was to stay next to the shooters, and when game is shot, the dog is sent to fetch it.

In America, we largely disregard these two distinctions. We use spaniels as retrievers, and we flush birds with retrievers.

Spaniels were easy to breed as strains., which is why they have existed as breeds for far longer than retrievers.

Retrievers, however, are very hard to breed. To breed a strain that consistently exhibits the behavior is really quite difficult, something that those desiring retrieving strains of West Siberian laikas are currently experiencing.

So it was very common for shooting sportsmen to cross different types of dogs and call them “retrievers.”

Each gentlemen would have his own recipe to create a perfect retriever.

But then things changed. The modern dog fancy rose in England, and the founding president of the Kennel Club, Sewallis E. Shirley, a Conservative MP and sportsman, began to promote the large  black retriever derived from the St. John’s water dog as the gentleman’s retriever, and it wasn’t long before everyone had to have a black retriever of this type.

By the 1870’s,  every shooting gentleman had a black retriever of this type and many were being actively shown, but this change was not met without protest.

A Scottish sportsman wrote into The Field magazine denouncing both dog shows and the desire for people to keep their retrievers black and “pure.”

Sir–, Your correspondent “Retriever” “seeks information through your columns to enable him some day to be a successful exhibitor” of retrievers at dog shows. I know of only one way to accomplish his object with much chance of success. To succeed at dog shows you must purchase a dog from some dog dealer at an enormous price, and, entering the dog in your name, you may not unlikely get in a measure reimbursed for the extravagant sum you have given for a useless brute, or at least stand a good chance to see your name figure in The Field as the owner of an admired animal. Dog shows are the greatest humbug in the world, and are ruining our breeds of dogs. But if your correspondent wishes to know how to insure a first-class retriever, I can tell him how to set about that; but it takes both time and judgment to accomplish it. It took me about three years. In a retriever you require nose, docility, a disposition to fetch and carry, little disposition to hunt, and great perseverance on a track. How are these requisites to be combined? Only by careful crossing. For nose and perseverance there is no dog better than the foxhound. Begin with him. Select a really good setter bitch of some size, and put her to an approved foxhound. By means of money you may always command the services of one of the leading hounds in any pack for such a purpose if you go properly to work; but take care to select a dog with a good temper as well as nose. The progeny of this cross will of course not be retrievers. Keep one of the most likely-looking of the bitch puppies, and, when old enough, put her to a really good St. John’s Newfoundland. This may probably bring the breed up to the mark; but if there should be anything to correct, another judicious cross (not necessarily Newfoundland) will without fail give you an A-1 retriever. Grede experto. But you must give up all the nonsense about black dogs without a white hair, and, I may add, the ambition of being “a successful exhibitor.”

–W. C. (pg. 93-94).

These debates about dog shows are not that old.

But it was at this moment in history that retrievers ceased to be dogs that were bred in much the same way lurchers are today and became a defined sort of breed.

If we were today declare a lurcher breed, it is very likely that we’d get very similar discussions.

The Scottish sportsman did what all working dog breeders have always done:  breed for function and ignore bloodlines.

But the modern dog fancy creates a system in which blood purity or– at the very least– consistency in type are more important than function.

It’s the exact opposite of how people have bred dogs for thousands of years, and it’s also the exact opposite of how retrievers were bred for the past two hundred years.

No concept in the dog world has done the species more harm than this Victorian concept of “breed.”

It’s based upon very dodgy science, most of which was rejected by the 1920’s in most other fields.

But the dog fancy is largely an authoritarian organization, and if we think of it is a high church, it is a high church with only one real commandment: blood purity for blood purity’s sake.

It’s not served the dogs well.

We do not have a handle on genetic diseases at all, and we won’t so long as we adhere to this blood purity commandment.

And is blood purity producing better working dogs?

It’s difficult to say, but in the old days, when they could select for work only, they were producing capable gun dogs.

They didn’t need a system telling them which dogs could be bred together.

Yet we commonly hear that we have to have this concept of breed in order to produce better dogs.

But when you are breeding for working dogs within these confines, it’s very likely that abilities are suffering.

Wouldn’t it be nice to add a bit of border collie biddability into retrievers?

Wouldn’t it be nice to strengthen undercoat in golden retrievers by crossing them with Labradors with very thick undercoats?

These options have all been taken from breeders.

But it was not always the case.

It’s a very, very recent development.

And its validity should be questioned.

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labrador and golden retriever

The internet is a place where people go to fight with strangers.

And because one can make one’s online identity virtually anonymous, one suddenly realizes that one has license to be as crazy and vindictive as possible.

The people who do this as a hobby are known as trolls, but even accounting for those people, the internet is still a decent place to have a discussion about issues that one normally wouldn’t discuss with others.

But there are some debates that I find tedious.

One that wears me out is the debate about which predator will best another in a hypothetical fight to the death. People even make Youtube videos about this crap, where they post things like clips of Sir David Attenborough claiming that Amur tigers eat brown bears or footage of a crocodile eating a bull shark (albeit a small one).

In that same vein, another debate that wears me out is the old golden retriever vs. Labrador debate.

I shouldn’t dignify this schism by calling it a “debate.”

It’s really a game of one-upmanship that involves people bringing up anecdotes and other good examples of what might be called confirmation bias.

Each camp will bring up bits and pieces of information that make their case:  golden retrievers win more obedience titles than Labradors; more Labradors are guide dogs than golden retrievers.

And then we’d get anecdotes.

If I were to make my case, I’d say that I have lived with golden retrievers that have figured out how to open doors, get tennis balls thrown when a person passes a lawn mower over it, and find missing Christmas money and an errant beanie baby.

I would say that most of the Labs I’ve known have been big lunkers of dogs that remind me more of Jethro Bodine or Homer Simpson that the dogs celebrated in duck blinds and guide dog schools throughout the country.

But that’s because the golden retrievers I’ve known have all come from working lines or were partially derived from them.

The Labs were all giant pet line dogs, most of which had no interest in retrieving or swimming.

The truth is there is no way one can make any of these claims rationally.

Both of these breeds are derived from the same stock, and both were essentially developed in their current form in the United Kingdom. They also have been heavily interbred throughout their development. They really aren’t distinct “taxa” as people might assume. Golden retrievers have a well-known outcross to a yellow Labrador, and it is well-accepted that golden retrievers were crossed into yellow Labrador lines to lengthen the coat.

Labradors in the US have undergone selective breeding for our kind of retriever trial, which, of course, means they are superior at winning this kind of trial.

But both of these breeds are capable of doing what they were bred for.

Golden retrievers are just much less likely to have been bred for it.

But a golden retriever that’s been bred for it is going to best a Labrador that has not.

And to make things even more complicated, both of these breeds are so common that it is really foolish to make broad, sweeping statements about either.

There are so many of these dogs that exist in so many different lines that have experienced so many different kinds of selection pressures that you simply cannot make generalizations about them.

Except for two:  golden retrievers tend to be a softer, more sensitive breed than Labradors, and Labradors tend to mature faster than golden retrievers.

Tendency is not the same as an absolute.

And when you ask people questions about what the best breed is you’re not going to get anything useful.

You’re going to get people who look at it from their own perspectives and experiences, which includes biases based upon anecdote and cultural mores.

You’re much better off meeting a dog as an individual.

And stay the heck away from internet forums and Yahoo! groups.

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