Labradors – Incredible companions, hunters, and sporting dogs. Everyone knows who they are. They’ve risen to the “Famous” ladder rung in America. But did you know there are two types of Labrador retrievers?
Yep, the English Labrador and the American Labrador. Are they different? Similar? Why are they broken down into two types? We’ll answer those questions and more as we take you into this big mushball world. (Of course, they’re just as talented as they are friendly.)
Then, you can break them down into two groups: Working labs and show labs. There are differences between the two. We’ll also talk about the history, temperament, and exactly how the Lab entered our lives.
We look forward to this opportunity to bring you into Labrador’s world and see why they’re so massively popular. Let’s go!
History of Labradors
Just like the Labrador’s complexity in makeup, their history is just as detailed. Initially, Portuguese, English, Spanish, and French fishermen went to the Atlantic coast of Canada with their dogs. Those canines mixed with other dogs and became the St. John’s dog, named after the capital of Newfoundland in Canada.
These dogs were split, depending on size, into two breeds: The enormous Newfoundland; The smaller one became the ancestors of what the Labrador is today and were from the same Newfoundland breed line. These talented black dogs had “tuxedo” markings and were incredible swimmers. They:
- Hauled nets
- Dove for cod
- Retrieved items in the water
Through these experiences, they learned the dogs’ coats were water-resistant, even from ice. When the fishermen returned to the English coast in the 19th century, they showed off their dogs by having them perform in front of crowds.
An onlooker, the Earl of Malmesbury, decided the dogs would make fine duck hunters, and a breeding program was developed. The “Labrador Dog” was born.
Five other royals took notice:
- The Duke of Buccleuch
- The Earl of Home in Scotland
- The third Earl of Malmesbury
- The sixth Duke of Buccleuch
- The twelfth Earl of Home
They called them “Malmesbury Dogs,” and they became the Lab we know today. Interesting notes: Buccleuch Labradors are still being bred. The St. Johns dog is thought to be extinct.
Why Are There Various Labrador Types?
Technically, there’s only one Labrador retriever, and it’s recognized by both the Kennel Club (UK) and the American Kennel Club (AKC). But some breeders breed for the hunt, and some for the conformation (dog) show or to have as companion animals, so there are small differences between the two.
In the mid-1800s, Colonel Peter Hawker and the Earl of Malmesbury started to breed Labs into gun dogs due to their endurance, intelligence, and talent to hunt. The dogs in between the Buccleuch dogs and the Labrador retriever started to produce yellow and chocolate puppies as we know today.
Before the year 1900, all Labs were black lab dogs, and then the Duke of Buccleuch developed them to have a liver color. Chocolate Labs were born during the time of Prohibition in the US.
In 1903, The Kennel Club recognized the breed, and the American Kennel Club followed suit in 1917. According to the AKC, Labs topped their registrations for the first time in 1991. They remained America’s favorite breed for 31 years. (The French bulldog grabbed the title in 2022.)
English Labradors vs American Labradors
Now, let’s delve into the distinct worlds of English and American Labradors, each breed showcasing unique traits and characteristics that set them apart.
English Labrador Retriever
The English labrador is sturdy and bulky. They’re known for their ability to fit into families, have calm personalities, and participate in conformation (dog) shows. The English Lab is a show-type dog.
Generally, they have a lower prey drive and mix and mingle effortlessly with adults, children, seniors, and other dogs. English Labrador retrievers can be 21.5”-22.5” tall.
They can weigh as much as 20 lbs. heavier than the American Lab. This is due to them having a broader chest and bigger bone structure.
American Labrador Retriever
The American Labrador is lean and has long legs, a thin coat, and an uncanny ability to hunt. Something to remember is just like the English Labrador, the American Labrador isn’t a proper term. They’re not breeds in and of themselves. This Lab is bred for speed, loyalty, and endurance or to be a working dog.
Having said this, both American and English Labs can have the abilities of each other, it just depends on the dog. The American Lab can be 21.5”-24.5” tall and weigh from 55-80 lbs.
How Are English and American Labs Different?
“English” and “American” Labs are something of a misnomer. The Labrador Site says, “…their differences have more to do with the roles they were bred for than where they came from.”
But there are some differences between the two dogs.
English Labrador retrievers have a “blocky” head, thicker coat, and a shorter and stockier build. They’re mainly bred to be family pets and are a bit calmer, more relaxed, and less excitable than the American lab. (If that’s even possible.)
They have a thicker coat and tail – “otter tail” – than American labs, with a fuller face and a slightly shorter muzzle. The English lab was bred for shows as well, so appearance and the ability to be around lots of people is everything.
The English Labrador retriever is also bred in a dark, red-yellow color called “fox red,” as well as yellow and black. Most are bred from English-bred stock.
American Labrador retrievers are often bred for the hunt. They have “soft mouths,” so the game can be returned to the hunter unmarked. They’re more agile, slender, and slightly taller than English labs. Their coats and tails are thinner and finer, and their longer legs let them cover hunting areas more quickly. They have a distinctively higher prey drive.
Their chests aren’t as broad as their British counterparts. They also have stamina that is off the charts, and they developed a talent for field trials where dogs are judged against each other to see how far they can go to retrieve. Most are bred from American-bred stock.
How Are English and American Labs Similar?
Both English and American labs have a long list of things in common:
- Friendly, loving, affectionate temperament
- Strong need to bond with their pack (humans and dogs)
- Similar body type
- Similar intelligence
- Water-resistant coat
- A strong desire to please
- Double coated
- Wonderful service, therapy, and guide dogs
- Outgoing personality
- Active lifestyle
- Easily trained
- Strong swimmers
What Is a Drakeshead Labrador?
This is not a dog breed but a famous British Labrador kennel name. They breed and compete with working-type Labradors. Only if your Lab is from this particular kennel will he have the Drakeshead name.
John and Sandra Halstead, from Lancashire, England, have been Labrador enthusiasts for decades. When John wanted to develop a type that was adept at wildfowling/duck hunting, the drakeshead was created.
As they showed, bred, trained, and competed with Labs, they won many competitions. They got the name “Drakeshead” from combining the last part of their name with the name for a duck – a drake.
Which Type Makes the Best Pet?
Now, let’s read about the types of labradors to see which one fits the bill and makes an ideal companion that matches your personality and home.
American Labs: Ideal for Activities and Hunting
The American Labrador retriever is the number one bird dog in the world. Although they’re tops as gun dogs, they’re equally as cordial, affectionate, and agreeable as millions of people in America can attest to.
Gun Dog Magazine says, “They dominate in popularity when it comes to sporting dogs.” Many hunters report that Labs are easily trainable with upland birds and waterfowl and that their coats are easy to care for. Plus, the fact that they’re wonderful with families makes them, well, the perfect dog.
A common theme with hunters is that their working dogs come from quality bloodlines. It’s one of the top things a good hunter looks for in a hunting partner.
American labrador retrievers learn hunting commands from an early age and retain and respond to them quickly. They’ve been bred for generations to work with their guardian in the field and on the water, so they know their jobs like the back of their paw.
As working gun dogs, they have strong instincts to hunt and retrieve. They’re highly energetic. (Note: If you’d like to adopt a Lab, make sure you have an active family. These dogs need hikes, jogs, or swims daily to stay healthy and happy. Also, make sure they’re mentally stimulated with interactive games or treat puzzles. They might develop bad habits like barking incessantly or separation anxiety if their energy isn’t spent.)
When it comes to dog sports, Labs are among the best at:
In the sport of dog agility, the guardian directs the dog through a pre-set course that is timed and has 14-20 obstacles. The guardian leads the dog with body language, cues, and commands. The obstacles can consist of weave poles, tire jumps, tunnels, seesaws, and pause tables where the dog must “Stay” for a certain amount of time.
Purebreds and mixed breeds can participate, and the size of the dog doesn’t matter.
In the sport of obedience, a dog must comply with the guardian’s commands, which might include: Sit, stay, retrieve, jump, and scent discrimination. Purebreds and mixed breeds can participate. The current most popular breeds that participate in the sport include Labrador retrievers, border collies, golden retrievers, and German shepherds.
Dog and handler move through a course that has 10-20 signs set up. The signs say things like “Sit,” “Stay,” or “Down,” and participants use teamwork to continue forward.
A guardian throws a favorite toy into a body of water while the dog waits on a dock that is about 40 feet long. He then runs and jumps into the water to retrieve it. The goal is to be the dog who jumps the furthest.
Hunting trials are a competitive sport that evaluates the performance of a dog’s hunting ability. Some of the best retrievers, spaniels, pointers, and hounds all participate. Hunting tests are non-competitive evaluations of a dog’s hunting ability.
English Labs: Aesthetics and Family Pets
On the flip side, English Labs are normally bred to look good and to be phenomenal family pets. They are developed to be able to perform with patience and focus. And breeding for show dogs is no easy feat.
A conformation show/competition, where dogs need to conform to standards, doesn’t judge dog against dog. Instead, judges are aware of the official breed type’s characteristics, and dogs are judged on that basis. (It’s why mixed breeds aren’t eligible to compete.)
A dog’s overall appearance and structure can indicate their ability to birth quality purebred pups. The bottom line is that dog shows are a competition to evaluate breeding stock.
Although judging is subjective, the process is still based on solid breed standards.
To breed a dog to be able to adhere to such explicit requirements is challenging, but that’s exactly the goal of some breeders in the UK (and the US, but we’re discussing the focus of many English Labs here.) There are all-breed conformation shows and specialty shows where dogs of a certain breed compete.
The other focus of breeding English Labradors is so they will be the best companion for families. They must be stable, even-tempered, quiet, non-threatening, alert but not nervous, and affectionate, among other characteristics. Breeders look to breed well-behaved dogs who are easily trained. These dogs are said to have better scent abilities.
Labrador Head Type
Blockhead/Boxhead Lab – English show Labs with broad, square heads. They’re bred to meet the physical ideal in the Labrador breed standard, which says “…a clean-cut head with broad back skull and moderate stop.”
Dual Purpose Labradors
A dual-purpose Labrador combines the best of both types. There are a few Labrador breeders in the UK attempting it. These Labs would:
- Be strong hunters/retrievers
- Be of medium weight
- Have thick otter-like tails
- Have solid broad heads
- Have thick coats
- Be focused
Important note: Mixing two lines can produce up-in-the-air results.
Which Type of Labrador Is the Calmest?
All Labs have a calmness about them, depending on the circumstances and the dog; however, Labradors bred from English Labs are generally more laid-back and calmer.
What Is the Difference Between a Yellow Lab and an English Lab?
A yellow Lab is just one of the coat colors of a Labrador retriever, so it’s basically the same thing since English Labs can be bred to be yellow.
Which Breed of Labrador Is Best?
There are no separate breeds of Labrador – only one. There are two different types of Labrador: American Lab and English Lab.
What Are the Two Types of Labradors?
- American Lab
- English Lab
Now you know the types of Labrador retrievers – American and English – and the two types of things they’re bred for – work and show. Whether there are minor differences doesn’t make any of them less important or beautiful.
So, if you’re going to adopt a Lab, just look for a reputable breeder and choose the dog that best fits your lifestyle; usually, that takes an active person or family. If you’re looking for hunting dogs, need a pal while you exercise, or just want a best friend who’s up for anything, adopt a Lab.
Because, after all, you can never have too many.