Whether it be true in practice or not, there cannot be the least doubt that the ideal structure for any animal ought to be that which enables it to perform its task with the least effort; and over a period of years nature would contrive to bring that about.
That such a process is painfully slow, goes without saying, but it would be very sure. In some instances, no doubt it would give us a type of animal rather different from our conception of what is suitable. It must not be overlooked that mortals almost always start with certain preconceived ideas, the bulk of which they have to unlearn before they make any real progress.
Practically everyone who has engaged in the fascinating study of breeding to type will have had to discard some favorite theory, while others would probably do better if they cast a few ideas aside.
With Labradors, we do at least find that we have a perfectly sane and sensible breed to commence upon – one that has evolved slowly and without any violent eruptions or drastic shortcuts. Improvements that have been made have come about by selection within the breed itself, rather than by frantic outcrosses that would take generations to become stable.
Whether the ideal that is being sought today in England is still exactly the same in all particulars as that which lead to the formaion of the Labrador Retriever Club twenty years ago is for others more competent to say, but materially it is the same. There have been no vast changes in type, no wholesale revisions such as we know to have taken place with several other breeds during the past twenty or thirty years.
Probably the greatest advance will be among dogs of average quality rather than outstanding individuals, so that for each good Labrador of two decades ago, there may be twenty of equal merit today. That is the very best kind of progress, the widespread benefits of which become increasingly recognized, as little faults are eliminated by careful breeding.
Let us picture the Labrador, then as a product of gradual evolution, without any freakish exaggerations, or tendencies to magnify the importance of any single feature.
First, the structure should be that of an active dog of sixty to seventy pound in weight; neither long nor short of leg, nor of neck or body – in fact the sort of dog that a child would have great difficulty in describing, except by color. Naturally the structure should be perfectly sound, the limbs move truly, no bone or tendons dwarfed by overdevelopment in other parts. This matter of soundness seems elemental, and has nothing to do with type, but it is often overlooked.
The prospective breeder may as well commence with the useful axiom that no typical Labrador is unsound and likewise no unsound Labrador is really typical. It is wise to adopt a very high standard of soundness, and to breed from a specimen that is not thoroughly typical rather than from one that is not sound. Persistent unsoundness in the structure are most difficult to eradicate in a strain, and one can readily picture the vexation of a breeder when he finds that not one of a promising litter is sound.
It is foolish to be tempted to turn a blind eye to that which exists, to think that it can be covered up or perhaps corrected. Such improvement is only for the present. The fault will show itself in each succeeding generation.
In general conformation, the Labrador should be rather stoutly built; not fat but of good substance, and quite obviously a strong dog. Those who lean toward the lightly built and think they are gaining speed have not realized that the correctly built dog of substance can move quite sufficiently fast for any legitimate purpose. A Labrador has got to be strong enough to carry a really heavy hare or bird, to jump with it over obstacles, to swim with it against a strong tide, to plough through mud and bracken, and to repeat these procedures if necessary, the whole day long. He may have to walk miles in heavy going, through thick roots, not at a leisurely walk „in line“, but in frequent and prolonged stretches at a smart pace, turning, twisting, hunting out a line with head well down and every faculty alert. The dog that tires after an hour or so is not of the right alloy, and the ability to produce a short burst of speed at the outset of the day is a very doubtful advantage.
It has been found that the dog that stands up to such grueling tests the best, is one which is strongly built and short-coupled, well balanced and of medium size. In other words we are looking for a very compact dog.
The back should therefore be very short and firm; the ribs wide and deep, with very little space between the last rib and the loin.
Looking directly downwards, from above, the outer lines of the body should be almost parallel. If there is any perceptible tapering toward the rear, the hindquarters are not sufficiently powerful and the dog will quickly tire.
Upon the hindquarters falls the greater part of the responsibility for thrusting the body forward, and with this in mind, the correct action and shape of the thighs and hocks will become apparent. If the hindlimbs are too straight and stiff, so that movement is obtained by just swinging like a pendulum from the point where they hinge to the backbone, the result will be very feeble and obviously unsuited to tangled ground. Powerful hindlimbs, correctly used, really give the effect that they are pushing heavy ground away behind them, which is precisely what they are doing. Thighs in an adult dog should therefore be very well muscled, the bones strong, hocks low-set and at a definite angle, moving well flexed when seen from the rear.
The chief duty of the forelegs is to carry weight. In trotting, quite two thirds, and at the gallop, a full three quarters of the weight is supported by the forelegs, which must therefore be strong, straight and true, and moreover, correctly placed. The elbows should be neatly tucked under the body, but the legs should not be too close together.
The shoulder is designed to absorb the shock or impact that might otherwise prove a strain on the limbs, and for that reason should slope well towards the middle of the back. A straight and upright shoulder will be stiff in comparison.
The lower ends of the limbs are also provided with shock absorbers in the form of pads and pasterns. The feet should therefore serve in the nature of cushions, not too large, nor thin, nor open. The craze for very small feet is wrong, and loses sight of the use that is made of the forelimbs in swimming. The ability to swin strongly is one of the inherent and very desirable qualities of the breed, and should be preserved with great care. No creature with tiny feet and thin legs can be a bold swimmer. It is chiefly for that reason that narrow chests should be avoided, and we can forgive a little thickening toward the top of the shoulder if it is due to the muscles that have been developed in such a good cause.
The neck should be of good length to enable the dog to put its nose well down in hunting, and also that his head can be well held up and readily turned in any direction, such as marking the fall of a bird, in questing and in swimming.
Short thick necks are a prevalent fault, probably caused by breeding for short backs and tails, the vertebrae tending to become shorter throughout the whole spine.
The head too should be moderate in all respects. Undue length of head or muzzle is not sought for, but any tendency to stumpiness should be avoided as that would limit the dog’s ability to pick up a large object. The jaws therefore, should be moderately long, consistent with their purpose, which is to hold anything firmly but gently.
The muzzle should be fairly square, with good outline, most dogs that are tight-lipped having poor scenting powers.
The skull itself, should be fairly wide, but not coarse, the difference being not easy to define in words. Heads that are wedge-shaped or thick through the cheek bones or behind the ears, are definitely wrong. A good head should have a neat stop between the eyes, and perfectly flat cheeks below the ears. Fleshy and lumpy cheeks, so we are told, were very common in the early days of the breed and are associated with hard mouths and a „rat trap“ grip that should have no place with a gundog.
The teeth are seldom mentioned in any Standard but it would seem to be one of the essentials that an animal used for picking up game for human consumption should have a mouth that is sweet and clean and wholesome. Unless the teeth have an even fit, it will not be easy to hold game as safely and as tenderly as is necessary.
The ears should be neat, carried close to the head and rather far back. Large, prominent ears give a „houndy“ expression that is foreign to the breed.
Wide misconception exists in the matter of eyes, which can be brown, yellow, or black, but a rich hazel color is the favorite choice. A point that is not sufficiently realized is that the expression of the eyes is more important than its color, and that any hard look is altogether wrong, as are eyes that are placed too closely, giving a mean expression.
The coat and the tail are two of the most important characteristics of the breed and are interrelated, because it is the correct clothing of the tail which gives it that thick, rounded, „otterlike“ appearance, that is so distinctive. The importance of a good tail will be understood when it is so invariably associated with a good dense Labrador coat, the texture of which should be fairly harsh on the surface. Upon turning back the outer hair, the undercoat will be seen to be very dense, completely covering the skin, softer and often lighter in color. This is the feature which is so essential, and none that is deficient or lacking in undercoat can be regarded as a typical Labrador. A coat that is too soft or too long will become „open“, admitting the wet, while a silky or glossy short coat has very little covering value.
Those who wish to understand a Labrador can put aside all books of advice and tape measures, but get out with the dog in the open country. There, let it hunt and swim, but always endeavor to control its actions while watching them closely. There is no finer companion for a day in the fields and the woods, either with or without a gun, and no better way to learn about gundogs.
- by RICHARD ANDERTON – prominent judge and breeder of the Hawlmark Labradors prior to World War II
Reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
from The New Complete Labrador Retriever by Helen Warwick