Labradors: The all-action dogs that are just as happy lazing on the sofa as saving lives

An all-action working dog that's never happier than when lazing on the sofa? That's the labrador for you. We take a look at one of the world's most beloved dog breeds.

It seems incredible that the Labrador breed club was only formed in 1916. Comparatively speaking, the dogs haven’t been with us for that long, but it’s hard to imagine life — and rural life, especially — without them. What country pub would be complete without several labs dozing by the fire while their owners tuck into Sunday lunch? What summer party feels right if there isn’t a labrador bounding around outside with the children, gamely allowing its ears and tail to be tugged? And how could any country walk take place without you being greeted by several endearingly whiffy and woefully muddy specimens?

Before you decide to get a lab of your own, you need to make sure that they’ll be a good fit for you and your family. Our article on how to choose the perfect dog is a great starting point; and once you’ve decided that it’s definitely what you want, we also have a piece on how to choose a labrador puppy.

Labrador puppies sitting on a log

This picture could only be improved if the puppies were using their paws to cover ears, eyes and mouth respectively… But, well, you can’t have everything.

There’s another element to consider: colour. While most labs are the familiar magnolia colour, you can also consider black and chocolate labradors, or even fox red.

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After all, red is the new black, as our fox-red labradors piece explained a couple of years ago…

Jill Parsons and her Fox Red Labradors

©Sarah Farnsworth/Country Life

The history of the labrador

Brought to Britain in the late 1800s by Col Peter Hawker and the Earl of Malmesbury, the amiable, gentlemanly labrador has its roots in Newfoundland, where its ancestors were bred to act as fishermen’s friends.

The dogs spent their days splashing about in the sea, hauling in nets and retrieving fish for their masters. It was a job they were perfectly suited for, with their cleverly webbed paws (which also act as natural snowshoes in inclement weather), waterproof double coats and otter-like tails. Today, labradors may have moved inland, but they love nothing better than returning to the water as any (occasionally exasperated) owner will tell you.

Rosie the labrador, walking along the Thames in Berkshire.

Rosie the labrador, walking along the Thames in Berkshire, moments before drenching herself and everyone around her.

And although they’re in their element huffing away in a warm country kitchen, these are no Aga-side ornaments. Labradors continue to excel in the field (racing around in search of fallen game like heat-seeking missiles), on the front line and in day-to-day life as guide dogs.

Ben Fogle is a keen labrador lover, and wrote in Country Life  a few years ago of this split between the breed’s love of action and laziness that can border on indolence:

‘The labrador is synonymous with loyalty, dependability, cheerfulness and a big appetite. It has become the world’s most popular dog, beloved of gamekeepers and royalty, bachelors and families. It is one of the most versatile breeds, capable of working in search and rescue, as a guide dog, in medical detection, as a sniffer or assistance dog and in the theatre of war.

‘It seems amazing to me that some of the world’s most prolific swimming dogs came from some of the world’s coldest water. But perhaps that was the point — people had to find an alternative to getting in the water themselves.

‘However, the labrador is a dog that loves to curl up on the sofa. They’re never happier than with their heads lolling out of the open window of a Land Rover.

White Labrador sitting on the grass

The competitive eaters of the dog world?

Yes, labradors can work up quite an appetite. But their eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, and the overwhelming majority of their energy is directed towards sniffing out, and eating, food. This can occasionally have near-catastrophic results: a few years back, a chocolate labrador called Barney had to be rushed to the vet after hoovering up 109 stones from a Kent beach.

Labradors will even down a pint and play bingo if you give them half a chance…

That’s not to say the dogs have no sense of restraint. Their control of their jaws is remarkable, and a labrador can reportedly hold an egg in its mouth without breaking it. But owners who take a firm line at mealtimes can find themselves racked with guilt — those melting, Andrex Puppy eyes are almost impossible to say no to.

Famous labradors and their owners

Service dog Endel, ‘the most decorated dog in the world’, has accomplished a series of extraordinary canine firsts: riding the London Eye, working a chip-and-pin ATM card, placing a human being in the recovery position without training. A film has even been made of his life.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s Guide Dog, Sadie, showed her sense of humour when she fell asleep under the table during a tedious meeting in Brussels and started snoring.

Famous labrador owners over the years have included Ernest Hemingway, Bill Clinton and, of course, the royal family: both the Queen and Prince Charles have owned labs.

Ernest Hemingway posing with shotgun and labrador. Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Contributors: Emma Hughes, Toby Keel. An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

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