Posts Tagged ‘Labrador retriever’


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Unlike the somewhat problematic aquatic ape theory, what I’m about to propose really isn’t that controversial at all.

The acquatic ape theory (more correctly called “the aquatic ape hypothesis”) argues that it was living in and near the water that forced humans to evolve bipedalism and is also used to explain why we have fat under our skin and like to swim. It’s even used as a possible reason why we have little fur left on our bodies, and it also claims that humans are unique among primates in our ability to hold our breaths under water, which isn’t actually true.

This hypothesis contends that humans were on our way to becoming marine mammals, and that this has made all the difference.

I don’t buy it.

But I do think something like this has happened with another animal that we currently don’t regard as being a “marine mammal.”

I’m talking about retrievers.

Now, we usually don’t think of them as being marine mammals. They are, after all, just a subset of domestic dogs, which are themselves a subspecies of the common wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

But unlike other dogs and wolves, the retriever is somewhat better adapted to swimming and diving than other dogs.

All dogs have connective tissue between their toes, but in retrievers, this connective tissue is a bit more extensive, which certainly gives them some advantage in swimming. All dogs are web-footed, but retrievers are more web-footed than others.

Many Labrador retrievers and some golden retrievers also have a tendency to put on quite a bit of fat. This is usually attributed to the dogs being derived from St. John’s water dogs that had to have voracious appetites to survive on Newfoundland during the winter when they weren’t used on the fishing fleet.

But such a tendency toward obesity doesn’t exist in arctic breeds, including those from Labrador and Greenland, which were similarly left to roam and forage when not being used for work. These dogs have healthy appetites. but you very rarely hear of a fat one.

But in Labrador retrievers, being fat is almost a breed characteristic. In the UK breed ring, the Kennel Club has had to crack down on people showing fat Labradors in the ring, for there are a great many dog judges in that country who think that a Lab shows ‘good bone’ when he’s shaped like a jiggling barrel.

This tendency towards being fat, though, does have an advantage for a dog that spends a lot of time in cold water. Fat insulates. It is also quite buoyant.

One can see that nature would have selected for St. John ‘s water that would have been more likely to have put on fat as a way of being able to handle swimming long distances in cold water. The fat would make the dog float more, and the animal would be able to keep its head above water with less effort.  And the fat would insulate it a bit more.

And although both of these features would be marginally advantageous, they would still have real consequences with a working water dog.

Before the St. John’s water dog developed, the European water dog was poodle-type animal. It had a very thick coat that protected the animal from the worst of the cold, but the coat also had a tendency to collect water. It was also a source of drag that slowed the animal down when it swam.

The clips we see in Portuguese water dogs and poodles stem from attempts to reduce drag while still keeping the protective coat.

The St. John’s water dog was different from all these European water dogs in that it had a smooth coat.

It was actually selected for this coat; any dogs that were born with feathering were shipped off to Europe.

A smooth coat has certain advantageous for a marine mammal.

After all, have you ever seen a seal with poodle fur?

What about a long-haired otter?

These animals have very close coats because this makes the animal move more efficiently through the water.

To have a water dog with an otter’s coat would have meant that clipping was no longer necessary.  The dense undercoat and the fat would have provided enough protection against the cold water, and the smooth coat required no maintenance. And the dog could swim longer and harder in very cold water for much longer.

The St. John’s water dog was dog on its way to becoming a marine mammal.

Indeed, if we now count polar bears a marine mammals, maybe we should classify this extinct breed of dog as one, too.

There are accounts of these dogs swimming for days at sea, which might be exaggerations, and stories of them diving many feet to retrieve shot seals.  There are even some fellows who use the dogs to pursue shot porpoises with varying degrees of success. They were also use to retrieve shot waterfowl and sea birds from those very same seas, which is sort of the same work their descendants do today.

But they were most famous for retrieving fish off of lines. In the old days, the English fishermen from the West Country would come to Newfoundland to fish with hooked lines. They plied the waters in small dories, and they would send their dogs to help haul in the lines. In those days, the fishhooks often were not barbed, and when the dog came upon the hooked fish, there was a good chance that it could escape. A good dog could catch the cod if it managed to work its way off the hook at the last minute, which is not an easy task!

Most retrievers and the modern Newfoundland and Landseer breeds derive from this water dog.  Some strains are very well-adapted to swimming in cold water. Others less so.

The retrievers of the United Kingdom were used primarily on shooting estates, where land-based game birds and lagomorphs were their main quarry.  Some were used to retrieve waterfowl, but the British retriever culture was primarily that of a land-based working dog. Over time, they bred for a smaller and lither working dog, which still shows up in the strains of golden retriever that are primarily bred for work. During the heyday of the working flat-coated retriever (of which the golden retriever is a surviving remnant), the majority of these dogs were 50-60-pound dogs with longer legs and gracile frames– quite different indeed from the somewhat robust water dogs of Newfoundland from which they descended.

If the particular shore-fishing culture of Newfoundland had been allowed to continue on for many, many centuries, it is likely that the the St. John’s water dog really would have begun to have evolved through both natural and artificial selection into a much more marine-adapted animal than it was. Perhaps the would have evolved even more webbing between their toes. Maybe they would have actually evolved a real layer of blubber beneath their skins for insulation.

At least one species of wild dog is semiaquatic. The short-eared dog of South America has been little studied, but in most analyses of its diet show that it eats a lot of fish. The short-eared dog has very webbed feet— even more so than modern retrievers do. Because they live in Amazonia, they have no need for fat for insulation, but it has been suggested that this webbing is an adaptation that helps the dog pursue a more aquatic existence than other South American wild dogs.

St. John’s water dogs were famous for their fishing abilities, and they were well-known for charging into the surf and coming out with a fish, a feat that one sometimes sees retrievers doing quite well. One could see that over time, that the St. John’s breed would have evolved even more in this direction than the short-eared dog has.

But the Newfoundland fishing changed over time. Better hooks and mechanized fishing equipment made the dogs largely obsolete. The cod fishery has collapsed, as has the fishery for almost everything else. The outports of Newfoundland were shut down through resettlement schemes.

And the ancestral bloodlines of the St. John’s water dog became polluted with “improved” Labrador retriever blood from UK and the North American mainland. The last of the St. John’s water dogs with no Labrador retriever ancestry are believed to have died in the 1970’s.

In the US, Labrador retrievers are called “duck dogs,” but virtually no Labrador retriever that is being used as a hunting dog in the US today is used exclusively on waterfowl.  Most of them at least moonlight as flushers and retrievers land-based game birds, which usually have longer seasons and more liberal bag quotas.

The retriever has to be a spaniel a lot of the time.

In the UK, the retriever is still primarily used on land-based game, though they are still used in “wildfowling” (a nice word for duck hunting).

In no place is it required to be the same kind of water dog that its ancestors were.

The potential for it evolving into a canine marine mammal has long sense passed.

But it could have gone down this road.

The retrievers that exist today are gun dogs that have been built and selected out of this lineage.

And it’s really what makes them unique as working dogs.

Now, this all might sound a bit bizarre, but this summer, reader Mashka Petropolskaya sent me this master’s thesis on the behavior of Labrador retrievers in an aquatic environment.  The thesis was written by a student in the marine sciences program at the University of Porto in Portugal, and the thesis found that Labrador retrievers are unusually attracted to water and that access to water and swimming opportunities may be very important for the welfare of dogs in that breed.

Not all Labradors like the water, but there clearly is a tendency in retrievers to be interested in the water.

So maybe we really need to appreciate their “marine mammal”  tendencies more in order to provide them the best environment possible.

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And what do you do with your beaver after you kill it? You eat it:



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Hunting a beaver with a Labrador retriever in the Northwest Territories:


The channel this video came from is called TheWildNorth.

It’s well worth your time to watch the hunting and trapping videos.

They are really amazing.

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Humans are a highly visual species.

We put an unusual amount emphasis on what things look like.

Dogs do not.

Their color vision is much more limited than ours.

We selectively breed dogs for what they look like.

We agonize over it.

We have standards that define the ideal appearance for a particular breed.

We have people who only want chocolate Labs or black ones or yellow ones or silver ones.

I personally like the look of the darker yellow Labs and darker golden retrievers.

The dogs don’t care.

Dogs are much more concerned with odor.

Which somewhat disconcerting (as Mitt Romney would say).

What if dogs were selectively breeding us?

I bet they would be selecting us for the odors we produce.

We probably wouldn’t be able to smell these odors or distinguish between them.

Just as dogs don’t know what color they are, we wouldn’t know what we really smelled like.



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Pippa Mattinson is training a new Labrador to work on her shoot.

Her name is Rachael.

And she’s a chocolate.

Chocolate Labradors are generally not well regarded in the British gun dog culture. That’s probably because most chocolates are found in lines that produce primarily conformation dogs.

The decision to use a chocolate Lab as a gun dog was met with polite skepticism:

I passed a member of our shoot on my way down to the meadow the other day and signalled to him that I had something of interest in the car.

“Oooooh!” says he with interest

“is it a new puppy??” says he with enthusiasm as he climbs out of his landrover

“is it a Labrador?” he asks excitedly as he crosses the road and peers in through the window of my truck

“Oh”. he says, as his voice trails away with disappointment. “What a pity” he sighs.

“Its chocolate…”

And he was only half joking.

It’s also somewhat unusual to find a chocolate Lab as a gun dog over here. Most chocolate Labs are in English conformation lines, but there are also found in the giant pet Labrador lines that are very common in this country. I’ve seen many chocolate Labs that look very much like smooth-coated bronze Newfoundlands.

Rachael doesn’t look very much like Tess, Pippa’s working-bred fox red Labrador.

To be fair, fox red is my favorite color in Labradors, but it’s almost entirely found in working bloodlines from the United Kingdom.

It’s virtually unknown over here, where most yellow Labs tend toward the paler end of the yellow to red spectrum. (Golden retrievers tend to be quite the opposite. Darker colors are still more common over here.)

Chocolates, though, are fairly popular in the United States.

There aren’t as many of them as blacks and yellows, but they aren’t exactly rare.

However, for whatever reason, the chocolate dogs are not normally found in any lines that are used for gun dog work.

Or anything else that Labradors are typically used for.

Why chocolates are so underrepresented is a fairly good question.

Could it simply be that the lines that produce chocolates tend not to be those that produce working retrievers, as I am suggesting here?

Or is there something intrinsic to the chocolate color that makes the dogs inferior?

I doubt that the latter hypothesis is correct. The German HPR’s are commonly liver in color, and they have generally been selected for that color over the black (with the exception of the large Munsterlander, of course.) And let’s not forget that Chesapeake Bay retrievers were always selected for the brown skin gene, including both brown-skinned yellow to red and true liver.

British gun dog culture has had a strong preference for black coloration in retrievers.  Rawdon Lee had nothing but contempt for “common brown retrievers” in his A History and Description of Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland (Sporting Division) (1894):

The common brown retriever that we see running about the streets, neither curled nor wavy, nor smooth, is a sort of nondescript animal we can well do without. He is usually snappish and ill-natured, and, when not looking in the gutters for a living, may be found chained up to a kennel in somebody’s back yard. Those who own a dog of this kind are recommended to exchange it for a nice little terrier, which will not only cost the owner less in the way of food, but be not so liable to bite his neighbour, his wife, or his children. When anyone is bitten by a dog the odds are two to one that the injury was caused by one of these common brown dogs (pg. 201-202).

It may be that decades of that particular prejudice has had some influence on the bloodlines, and that it may have started a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy through genetics.

But people are trying to breed chocolates into working lines, and they are trying produce decent animals.

Maybe someday, the decades of prejudice against chocolate Labradors in working lines will disappear.

But within Labradors, there are many subcultures, and many different ideas about what is an excellent example of this breed.

It is very difficult to get people to change their minds, especially when tradition says that it’s always been this way.

Tradition can be the worst enemy of dogs.

This one is one of the toughest to overcome.



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Tip was an imported “Labrador” whose descendants were top field trial flat-coated retrievers, Pitchford Marshal and Monk.

He was born in 1832 and was imported.

His coat, if one looks closely,  might have been feathered. I note a plumed tail, rather than the more typical brush tail of the St. John’s.

I could be wrong  about what I’m seeing (and I do NOT want to have a discussion about it).

It’s just very unusual that we see depictions of the ancestral St. John’s water dogs that went onto found strains of retriever. Normally, we find out through some unusual scholarship that a particular retriever was an import, but normally, this information isn’t provided.

This image comes from The Complete English Wing Shot (1907) by George T. Teasdale-Buckell.

And Teasdale-Buckell does provide depictions of his descendants, and they are clearly flat-coated retrievers, though much more robust than the current incarnation.

So he may have been a feathered dog.

One aspect of retriever history that has been overlooked is that St. John’s water dogs came in both smooth and feathered varieties. At least at one point, they did. The settlers were eager to get rid of the feathered dogs, so they very readily exported them, where they were used to found strains of retrievers. This explains why the long-haired wavy-coated retriever was the most common retriever in the British Isles through much of the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, most of the research on retriever history that has examined these water dogs and their role in founding retrievers has been performed by Labrador retriever historians, and at least subconsciously, they have tended to ignore the feathered variety.  If they mention them at all, they assume they must have been crosses with collies, setters, or spaniels, but when one reads of feathered retriever-liked dogs actually being born in Newfoundland, this assumption doesn’t appear to have much validity.

It’s true the Newfoundlanders preferred smooth-coated dogs, and the last remaining “pure” St. John’s water dogs were smooths.

But that doesn’t mean that they always were this way.

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The first two are pre-Labrador retriever.

They are both St. John’s water dogs, which are the ancestors of all the British retriever breeds.  (Here’s the 1819 version, and the second dog is Billy from Stonehenge’s The Dog in Health and Disease. Billy could have been registered as a wavy-coated retriever.)

This chart shows how the Labrador retriever was developed from the St. John’s water dog landrace and then selectively bred into different types as time as progressed.

This is really the story of all purebred dogs once they enter the closed registry system.

They start out as rougher and more diverse, then they become more conformed and, paradoxically, more prone to fads within conformation breeding.

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This is a Labrador retriever from France with what appears to have the somatic black spot mutation that appears in golden and Labrador retrievrs on occasion. It is not inherited, but the cells where the black spots are located do not have the e/e mutation that causes the yellow to red coat. Instead, this somatic muation makes the cells E/e, which gets expressed as black or liver. These dogs are sometimes called mosaics.

Alternatively, this dog may not be experiencing that somatic mutation. It might actually be a chimera, which happens when two zygotes combine. This dog could be made up of two distinct fertilized eggs– one that would become a black dog and one that would become yellow.

However, it’s much more likely that it is the result of the somatic muations. Chimeras of this type have not been found in domestic dogs.


This dog looks very much like an African wild dog, which is called Lycaon pictus (but should be called Canis pictus).  The title of this post comes from the African wild dog, for the coloration is so similar that one might be fooled into thinking that this is actually a Labrador retriever/African wild dog cross.

Though the pelage coloration is similar, it is caused by an entirely different genetic basis. African wild dogs inherit their “painted” coloration. If this Labrador were bred to another yellow Labrador, all of his offspring would be likely be yellow. The chances of him producing a puppy that will experience this mutation in the somatic cells are very low, and he would not be responsible for it if one did pop up. Somatic cells are not used in reproduction. Gametes are. This Labrador’s gametes are those of a normal black-skinned yellow Labrador.

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This dog was 17 years old in the April of 2010.

The source for this photo describes her in this way:

Now 17 years old I named her Liddy after G. Gordon, In her prime she was hell on pheasants and a fantastic retriever on waterfowl. Has been one of the best dogs around home that I have ever had.

She is a Golden Retriever Lab cross.


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