The Labrador, according to the many videos and news reports we see of them, is the dog that does it all: after a long day of detecting bombs and drugs, pulling a victim from a collapsed building, helping a man with epilepsy detect his seizures, and comforting grief-stricken children, the Labrador Retriever returns home to play with your toddler, collect cuddles from you, and possibly make your dinner.
I have to admit my bias here: I am a Lab partisan. My family has always had Labs, from Nate the Dog to Ben to Tucker. My younger sister and her then-boyfriend/now-husband acquired a yellow Lab, and a few years later, she rescued a Lab mix from the side of the road. She tried to adopt the Lab mix out, but the Lab mix preferred to stay.
And I had Finn, objectively and scientifically proven to be the Best Dog Ever, for seven years.
Labradors were developed as multipurpose working dogs, first as net-haulers in the icy waters of Newfoundland and then as gun dogs retrieving birds for hunters. Their maritime heritage is evident in their coats (insulated, water-repellent, prone to extravagant shedding) and their trademark “otter” tails, which help them steer and, out of the water, knock over valuable low-lying objects; they are also water addicts who will stay in a body of water as long as you let them. Just as important to the breed is its nose, which has acquired fame as the sniffer that sniffs out contraband and explosive devices. Labs were bred to work closely with humans, so that’s where they’re happiest: right next to their person. Or people. Everyone can be a Lab’s person. Everyone is a Lab’s person; they just don’t know it yet.
How do you know if you’re the right person for a Lab? Here’s what a Lab is like:
- Labs want to buy the world a Coke (but they’d probably drink it). Finn knew he loved everyone from the moment he smelled them; I could always tell by the perked ears, alert-and-hopeful expression, and wagging tail that Finn had spotted an old friend or new friend approaching. When I would take him to campus to play in the ponds, we’d run into friends of mine, who would find Finn leaning against their legs, gazing blissfully up at them as they scratched his ears. He also “volunteered” at the hospital where my dad works, visiting with patients, participating in staff meetings, and hoovering up dropped food in the cafeteria, and according to my dad, loving every minute.
- Labs are brilliant actors. Nothing is as pathetic as a Lab, with pleading, upturned eyes, trying to tell you he needs to be fed his dinner right now or he will die. Nothing is as quietly tragic as a Lab being inflicted with an unwanted bath. Nothing is as hopeful as a Lab who’s just placed his favorite fetching toy in your lap and is hopping up and down excitedly, waiting for you to throw it. Nothing has that action-hero intensity like a Lab just waiting for you to do something for her.
- Unless you have no soul, a Labrador will always make you laugh. While their antics can verge on the destructive (and go howling by it), they will provide you with years of stories to make your family laugh and your visitors smile politely, or, if they have Labs, commiserate and compare stories. My family has tales of Lab misadventures from more than 30 years back. It’s taking everything in me to keep from bombarding you with Finn anecdotes right now. While sometimes these antics end in trips to the vet or a trip through the house with the steam cleaner, your Lab will have still given you a memory to look back upon with fondness.
- Labs have all the energy, and they have it for a long time. Labs have a hard time growing up; even a dignified senior Lab will sometimes return to puppyhood, stealing a treat from an opened refrigerator or parading around with a purloined shoe. Adult dogs, so long as they’re healthy, love nothing better than a day outdoors. This energy means, though, you have to commit to a high-energy dog for years beyond adolescence. A happy Lab needs a yard to mess around in, or else daily walks and romps in an off-leash park, where he can expend all that energy and then nap at home, rather than take it out on your stuff.
- The way to a Labrador’s heart is through her stomach. All you have to do is offer a treat to a Lab and he will be your friend for life. Their devotion to food means they can be wily about getting it when they’re not supposed to have it; they’ll eat anything that isn’t nailed down, and many things that are. They might even eat the nails. Food you thought was safely stored away is later found on the floor in the form of crumbs, with a sad, dented Tupperware container or shredded plastic wrap the lone survivor.
- Like a tragicomic hero, the Labrador’s greatest strengths can be its shortcomings. Their intelligence can, if not properly directed, lead to a life of crime. In the time it took to write this sentence, at least a hundred Lab owners have discovered a Lab-related calamity has befallen them. Their sense of smell and one-track minds mean they will follow a scent anywhere until they’ve tracked it down and eaten its source. In general, their obsessiveness means they will work tirelessly toward a goal, whether it’s tearing up that bit of loose carpet or knocking over furniture to find a long-abandoned toy.
In the wrong hands, the breed can be the victim of its reputation. Although they’re naturally tractable, Labs still require training and firm boundaries. Whether you get a puppy or an older Lab, be prepared to do the legwork to make your dog a good citizen.
One other consequence of the Lab’s popularity is the tendency of breeders to select for size and heaviness, producing Labs that are stocky and heavy-set. (He doesn’t look it in the photos I’ve included, but Finn was very solid.) The packing on of extra weight — weight the Lab was never intended to carry — leaves Labs prone to joint problems, including hip dysplasia and arthritis.
So what kind of person has a Lab? If you look at the numbers — the most popular dog in the US for 22 consecutive years and possibly the most popular worldwide — all sorts of people own Labradors or Lab crosses. I can tell you that depressed, anxious graduate students desperate to have a Labrador in their lives have Labradors, so I’m sure other kinds of people have them, too.
Maybe a better question is who should have a Lab?
If you recognize that less-than-pristine carpet and furniture is a small trade-off for stealth snuggles (where one minute you’re working on your laptop and the next a 75-pound dog has materialized on you); if you enjoy stories that make you laugh and shake your head in disbelief; if you like long walks anywhere or marathon fetch games or chasing after the scent of that dead mouse; if you decide you can sleep despite having to contort yourself around an immovable, volcanically-snoring canine lump (and, in fact, you get used to it); if you like knowing that when you hold out your hand there’s a head waiting to nudge up into the cup of it, so your fingers rub those floppy triangle ears and you hear the world’s most contented sigh… you might just be a Lab person.
(Okay, one last anecdote: When I went to the house of the woman who owned the rescue to see Finn, it was a blustery, snowy January day. I’d taken my gloves off to negotiate putting keys in my purse and had put them in my pocket. When the rescue organizer opened the door, Finn [fka Jimmy] shot out, hurled himself at me, seized one of my gloves, and ran away with it. I knew right then I needed to adopt him, because you don’t get any more Labrador than that.)
LEVEL OF OWNER EXPERIENCE NEEDED: VARIES. You have to be willing and able to put the work in to direct your Lab’s energy, and recognize you may be living with that energy for quite a few years. If you can do that, though, your Lab will be your faithful, furry shadow.