Labrador Retriever | Complete Breed Characteristics Guide

Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM

Labrador Retriever with her tongue out

Labrador Retrievers are everywhere you look in all walks of life. You see them in every household, it seems.

Should you jump on the bandwagon and get a Labrador for your family?

Using my experience as a veterinary doctor, I’ve put together this one-page guide for Labrador Retriever owners. Read on to learn more about this incredible breed and what you can expect from living with these versatile dogs. Here’s all the information you need to ensure a successful friendship!

1- Brief Introduction

The appearance of Labrador retrievers in dog parks, on the police force, in nursing homes, and the bloodlines of several prominent designer dogs is evidence of not only their overwhelming popularity but their versatility for countless services to humans.

The qualities that make them excellent retrievers also cross over to make them great family members and service dogs.

This breed is smart, dedicated, loving, and patient with an instinct for cooperation.

You might wonder, “Is the Labrador retriever’s popularity just hype?”

It is true Labradors have many remarkable qualities that may make them an ideal pet but not necessarily the right dog for you.

For example, is the Lab a good guard dog? Is it easy to train? How much time will you need to spend grooming?

These and other considerations will help you ultimately decide on which dog will be your next.

2- About the Labrador Retriever

The Labrador is a medium or medium-large gundog with floppy ears, a friendly gaze, and a balanced build.

Like many of the sporting breeds, she has evolved into a steady companion with nerves of steel.

Labrador retrievers are among the most adaptable and even-tempered of family pets.

Labrador Retriever posing

They enjoy small children and other dogs and do not know a stranger.

With their considerable stamina and laidback personality, Labradors can transition seamlessly from watching TV with Grandma to hiking long trails with your college kid and her friends.

3- The remarkable history of the Labrador Retriever

Your Labrador retriever’s history is rich and intriguing.

Originating in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, historians say the Lab evolved from descendants of a landrace breed, the St. John’s Water Dog, in the late 1700s.

English settlers had been using the St. John’s since the 1500s to retrieve fish.

Indigenous to Newfoundland’s island, the St. John’s Dog was also known as the Lesser Newfoundland.

It gave rise to the Newfoundland as well as the Labrador retriever and various other sporting dogs.

Best guesses say the name Labrador came from the British and their desire to distinguish the dog from its larger cousin, the Newfoundland.

English boatmen imported descendants of the St John’s Water Dog in the early 1800s and sold them to aristocrats.

The Earls of Malmesbury were using them in the field by 1809, establishing the first official Labrador kennel around the 1830s.

The second line of Labradors, the Buccleuchs, developed separately in Scotland under the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and his cousin, the 11th Earl of Home, beginning in 1835.

Labrador first appeared as the official breed name in 1839.

Labs eventually all became descendants of the Buccleuch line when they almost went extinct in the 1880s.

The Buccleuch and Homes met the Malmeburys by accident at a waterfowl competition.

As a result of that meeting, the Malmesburys received a few dogs from the Buccleuchs to improve their stock.

Labrador Retriever drawing

Meanwhile, the Buccleuchs continued to infuse their line with St John’s Dog imports into the 1940s.

Modern Labradors retain traits in common with the Newfoundland thanks to the now-extinct St. John’s Water Dog.

  • Webbed feet
  • Powerful arched neck
  • Dense double coat with oily water-repellant topcoat
  • Floppy ears designed to keep out water

Labrador retrievers joined the Kennel Club of England in 1903 and the American Kennel Club in 1917.

Labs did not receive widespread recognition in the United States until 1928.

After World War II, the Lab’s popularity with everyday families solidified.

The breed first hit No. 1 in the US in 1991 and has remained near the top of that list since.

4- Interesting facts about this furry friend

  • The Labrador retriever is the most common breed used as a guide dog for the blind – In a study in the early 2000s, the Labrador x Golden retriever mix had the highest rate of guide dog school passing.
  • The Lab originated in Canada and was developed by England and Scotland.
  • Labrador retrievers are the most popular dogs in the US and UK and No. 3 in the world (as of 2019) after the English bulldog and German shepherd.
  • Labradors have a bite force of 230 PSI (pounds per square inch), but such is their control they can carry a raw egg in their mouths without breaking it.

5- Labrador Retriever Characteristics

A Labrador retriever should strike you as a friendly, outgoing dog with a steady temperament and athletic bearing.

The Lab is very intelligent and obedient. 

The Lab’s head is distinctive head-on and in profile with broadness between the ears and a moderate stop.

Her eyes are medium-sized and wide-set, expressing intelligence. Ears are also medium in size and hang relatively close to the head.

Labrador Retriever close up face

Every part of the Labrador is equipped for retrieving birds, whether from the water or the upland field.

Therefore, you will notice a rather square dog with a powerful neck, strong shoulders, and muscular hindquarters.

Labradors are not flashy movers but cover ground efficiently. They have a short-coupled body with a moderately broad chest.

This contrasts with the relative length of many herders, which trot all day; Labs do a lot more loping.

They can run tirelessly, can quickly dart when needed, and are powerful swimmers with webbed feet.

The tail is about as distinctive as the head. Show standards call for Labs to possess a powerful “otter tail.”

Field dogs, however, have evolved a narrower, more tapered tail.

There are two forms of the Labrador Retriever. The American Lab is more slender than the English Lab, with longer legs and a narrower head.

An English Lab, with its block-type head and stout body, is the preference of show rings.


Your Labrador retriever can be one of three colors.

Black and yellow Labradors have brown eyes and dark rims. Chocolate is the third color.

Chocolate Labs have amber or brown eyes because the color represents the complete suppression of dark pigmentation, eumelanin.

Further dilution of the liver and the other two colors will lead to exciting shades.

However, the AKC still recognizes such Labs as chocolate, yellow, or black.

  • Chocolate – Silver
  • Yellow- Champagne
  • Black – Charcoal
Labrador Retriever with a ball

6- How adaptable your little friend is

Labrador retrievers are easy-going, albeit enthusiastic.

They are highly adaptable to a range of circumstances, from where they live to what kinds of activities and work they can do.

+ Good for novice owners – yes

Labs are friendly, easy to train, eager to please, and great with kids.

They are suitable for novice owners despite their size because they forgive mistakes you might make in training.

This breed is also bomb-proof, not likely to hold a grudge against a child pulling their tail or you scolding them for jumping on the table.

+ Adapts well to apartment living – yes

Labradors can adapt to apartment living as long as you make daily exercise a priority and give them plenty of the attention they crave.

+ Sensitivity level – moderately high

You may look at most Labs and determine from their easy-going attitudes that they are insensitive.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Labrador retrievers’ intelligence and responsiveness to her owner make her sensitive to your mood changes and, at times, even empathetic.

Your Lab will be sensitive to a raised voice or any hint of disapproval.

He will be crushed if you ignore him. Labradors shut down and stop learning if you verbally or physically abuse them.

Occasional mild scolding is not the same as scolding or screaming.

Most become fearful and mistrustful with repeated poor treatment, but a few can turn aggressive and unpredictable.

+ Tolerates being alone – no

Labrador retrievers are field workers or companion dogs. Therefore, they do not do well alone.

Like any large dog, Labs can be destructive if you leave them to their own devices while you work long days.

They will dig or chew on the furniture, floors, or your favorite shoes.

Your neighbors may also complain as your frustrated dog takes up incessant barking and whining.

+ Tolerates cold weather – moderate cold

Labradors have a few adaptations for cold weather.

Labrador Retriever running on a river

After all, they are from Canada’s Northern reaches, and hunters selected them to retrieve seals, fish, birds, and nets from the icy water.

Labrador retrievers have a double coat that is resistant to moisture and snow.

However, a Lab is not a German shepherd or a Malamute.

She will expend a lot of energy keeping warm if the temperature dips near 20 degrees Fahrenheit or if she spends too long in temperatures below 30 degrees Fahrenheit with no activity.

You have to consider several factors to determine whether your Lab can stay outdoors when it is cold.


Puppies cannot regulate their body temperatures, and their small size means they have a sizeable relative body surface to mass ratio, which speeds up heat loss.

Even young dogs between six and nine months may not have enough muscle mass to keep warm in freezing weather.

As your dog ages, muscle and fat tend to decline.

Dogs over ten years old experience a decreased ability to stay warm because of lower body mass, a reduced ability to self-regulate their core body temperature, and diminished effectiveness of shivering.


Sick dogs should be in a strict climate-controlled environment at all times.

Trying to regulate their body temperature robs them of the energy they need to fight disease or recover from events like surgery.

Body mass

The less muscle and fat your dog has, the more difficult it will be for him to keep warm.

Fat insulates, but lean dogs can still keep warm through their muscling.

Dogs who have lost weight from nutritional challenges or disease struggle to stay warm enough in the cold. 


Your provisions for an outside dog are paramount to keeping your dog warm in winter.

From a social standpoint, your dog should ideally live indoors with your family.

Nevertheless, in providing outdoor protection, you need to consider wind and moisture.

Wind protection saves a lot of energy expenditure for your dog.

Long soaking rains can also lead to hypothermia if they penetrate past your dog’s undercoat.

Labrador Retriever laid down

Shelters should keep snow and rain out. Finally, if your dog stays out much of the year, you need insulation and maybe even a heated kennel or dog house.

Be aware that some states have mandates against leaving dogs outside in certain conditions.

+ Tolerates hot weather – no

Labrador retrievers do not tolerate hot weather nearly as well as they do the cold.

They move air fairly well by panting in temperatures up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beyond 90 degrees Fahrenheit, a Lab struggles to keep her body temperature at sustainable levels.

She is even less successful at circulating cooler air when the humidity hits 20% or higher.

You can help your Lab by providing shade and water during the dog days of summer.

Misters can help, but wading pools and sprinklers where your furry friend can soak her coat are much more effective.

When it is hot and humid, it is best to just bring your Lab indoors.

Avoid exercising your dog or allowing her to play hard outside when it is hot or humid.

Labrador Retrievers are a breed that is susceptible to heatstroke.

Why are Labs at risk of heatstroke?

  • Some Labrador retrievers have a slightly shortened nose – A shortened nasal passage allows less time for cooling of air 
  • Laryngeal paralysis – We discuss the condition later, but Labs are vulnerable, and it is a leading factor in heat stroke in older dogs
  • Overexertion – Labs usually will not regulate their play when it is hot
  • Indoor Labs have not acclimated to outdoor heat; Hunters spend longer in the elements with their Labs, and these dogs may tolerate heat better.

7- Friendliness of the Labrador Retriever

+ Affectionate with Family -yes

A lab in the company of his family is the happiest of all. Despite their size, Labs do not mind being lapdogs now and then and love to cuddle. 

+ Kid-friendly – yes

It is never proper canine etiquette to hug and hang on dogs.

A Lab is one breed that will probably tolerate all types of childhood antics.

Labradors love kids, seemingly programmed at an early age to be kind and gentle around them.

They always find a sense of humor, seem willing to be a playmate for hours on end, and have the patience to suffer through countless humiliations and tortures.

Labrador Retriever dizzy

+ Friendly with other pets – yes

Labrador Retrievers are generally friendly with other pets, even cats.

They are especially cordial if they were raised with another dog or have known her for a long time.

However, Labs are still individuals, so never take acceptance between animals for granted.

Make introductions between dogs properly.

Take your time, arrange meetings with unfamiliar canids on neutral territory, and watch for any signs of aggression.

No matter how friendly Labs are, they can feel territorial, threatened, or insecure in certain situations.

Socialization is crucial to help your Lab be comfortable with other dogs.

+ Friendly towards strangers – yes

Labrador retrievers are usually friendly with everyone. They are people-oriented, and you will probably observe your Lab walk up to anyone with tail wagging and nuzzling for a pet.

However, your Lab likely will bark when someone knocks on the door or first arrives at your house.

Labs also bark at strange noises, making them good watchdogs. They are very unlikely to bite a person.

8- Health and grooming needs

+ Amount of shedding – moderately high

Labs shed a great deal year-round, but they do not have the heavy molts some of the other double-coated breeds do.

You may see a slight increase in shedding in the spring and fall.

+ Drooling potential – low

+ General Health – good

Labradors have some hereditary problems but are generally healthy dogs.

Labrador Retriever with a ball

On average, they live 10 to 12 years.

Some of their more common issues are hip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, bloat, arthritis, progressive retinal atrophy, and diabetes.

Whenever possible, the AKC recommends in your due diligence that you make sure your breeder complies with the following tests and certification for the parents of any puppy you would consider.

  • Hips – OFA certification
  • Elbow – OFA radiographs
  • DNA test – Test for exercise-induced collapse or EIC
  • Eyes – Ophthalmologic evaluation

If you adopt your Labrador retrievers from a rescue organization, animal shelter, or a friend, registry certificates, lineage, and parents’ status may not be available.

However, if you go through a breeder, try to find one who is responsible and ethical.

+ Potential for weight gain – high

Your Labrador will be perfectly content to adapt to a sedentary lifestyle.

Unlike the working group or the herding class, Labs are not visibly distressed or worried if they do not have a specific job as long as you are there.

Labradors also enjoy their food and easily manipulate extra treats out of unsuspecting family members.

You must ensure they do not overeat and to make sure she gets her daily exercise.

+ Easy to groom – yes

Brushing will distribute the oils through your dog’s coat, enabling it to perform its designed function efficiently.

It also keeps the undercoat loose and fluffy, so it interacts better with the outer guard hairs for warming and cooling.

Plan on brushing your Labrador once or twice weekly, although more often will not hurt. Brushing is a way to spend quality time with your Lab.

+ Size

Both males and females are 22 to 24 inches tall at the shoulder. Males Labs weigh 64 to 79 pounds, and females 15% lighter.

9- Trainability

Labrador Retriever running

This dog breed has high trainability because of intelligence and close bonds with their owners or handlers. Labs have a genuine desire to please. 

+ Easy to train -yes

Labrador retrievers are smart and obedient, making them easy to train.

Behavioral problems and a short attention span can creep in with a lack of exercise.

You also must fulfill your dog’s social needs.

You probably will not have to work as hard to gain your Lab’s respect as with some of the guard breeds, but you need to establish a bond and consistency.

Labradors, like most dogs, thrive with positive reinforcement.

Food motivates them but so does praise and displays of affection.

+ Intelligence – high

Although many Labs have a reputation for being a little goofy, they are among the top 10 smartest dogs.

Stanley Coren, a famous psychologist who wrote books about canine intelligence, ranks the Labrador retriever seventh in working intelligence right after the Sheltie and Dobie.

Labs also demonstrate the ability to solve problems, apply their previous training, and think for themselves in the field.

+ Prey drive – high

Labradors are hunting dogs, and therefore, their predatory instincts are high.

However, this prey drive has undergone such redirection that Labs do not often chase other animals but can perform as top dogs in many disciplines.

  • Agility
  • Search and rescue
  • Therapy
  • Autistic and blind assistance
  • Sniffing dogs in police and military
  • Retrieving trials

+ Tendency to bark or howl – low

Labradors have a loud, forceful bark. However, Labs that receive sufficient exercise and attention do not commonly use their voices.

Labs are also not a howling breed. Your dog is likely to announce visitors or suspicious occurrences.

Otherwise, excessive barking can be a sign of separation anxiety, boredom, or pent-up energy.

+ Potential for mouthiness

Puppies are almost always mouthy and need to learn appropriate behavior concerning nipping and chewing.

However, Labradors as adults are not usually mouthy as relates to people.

Your dog will not likely try to carry your hand in his mouth or nip at your heels to move you along.

However, a Lab’s potential to be mouthy is high regarding inanimate objects.

Labrador Retriever playing with a ball

As a retriever, Labs feel good picking up shoes, balls, and other objects and exploring them with their mouths.

Most Labs just carry things around, but some eat them, creating a digestive disturbance and even foreign body obstructions.

You can satisfy some of your Lab’s instincts by providing many appropriate toys and playing games like Fetch.

Do not leave your dog unsupervised with a toy until you know her behavior with it.

The most indestructible Kong ball can end up in pieces in your Labrador’s small intestine if she is an aggressive chewer.

10- Physical needs

+ Intensity – moderate

Labradors, largely go-with-the-flow dogs, have moderate intensity.

They have the drive to do well in multiple activities, though not the single-minded focus of a few other breeds.

They require extra attention to training as youngsters but mellow out with adulthood.

Field trial lines are more intense on an everyday basis than their show or pet-quality counterparts.

+ Energy level – moderately high

Although they can turn their activity level up and down according to what you enjoy doing, a healthy Labrador by nature is a medium- to a high-energy dog.

Your Lab will try to fit in with your lifestyle and appease you, but you must provide an energy outlet, or your dog may act out later.

+ Exercise needs – moderately high

Pet Labrador Retrievers with laid-back personalities need about 45 minutes of exercise a day.

However, working lines or field trial descendants may need as much as an hour and a half of activity daily.

Twenty to forty minutes should be rigorous, while the remainder you should split between walking and training.

Besides, puppies need socialization allotments. Dogs usually do best with their exercise quota divided into multiple sessions.

Exceptions are special events like an agility trial or an outing.

Young puppies have a short focus and tender growing bones.

You can only do brief sessions every day despite their energy levels. A rule of thumb is five minutes per month of age a few times a day.

Allow very young puppies under four months old to regulate how much playing they can do before they tire.

You will have to step in for adolescent pups with open growing plates that do not know their limitations.

Labrador Retriever looking at the camera

An excellent way to limit exercise in growing puppies is to spend a lot of time on mentally exhausting activities like training new tricks and socializing with new people and places.

Always consult with your veterinarian to coordinate the appropriate socialization exposure with your pup’s vaccination schedule and history.

+ Potential for Playfulness – high

One reason Labs get along so well with children is their playfulness.

Labradors can handle hours of interactive play without escalating excitement or becoming aggressive.

Moreover, they excel in interactive play such as chasing and fetching games.

11- Temperament 

Labradors inherit a calm, friendly demeanor and a willingness to work and please from the St John’s Water Dog. 


Labrador Retrievers make great pets for children. The breed is person-oriented and patient.

It is always good to remember that every Lab is unique, and some will have less patience than others.

Nevertheless, healthy Labs enjoy playtime with both kids and other dogs.

Because of their size and the rambunctiousness of young labs, always supervise them with children under eight or nine years old.

Kids should always receive instructions about appropriate behavior around dogs.

Other Pets

Labradors are amiable and tend to get along with other pets.

While it may be a stretch to leave your Labrador with your pet rabbit, she will likely learn to leave what belongs to you alone.

Cats and toy-sized dogs require caution because your enthusiastic Lab can inadvertently harm them.

Labs are not likely to have a problem with other pets, but you should only leave them alone with other dogs their size.

12- Health

The Labrador retriever can be vulnerable to a few health problems because of hereditary or conformational factors.

  • Hip dysplasia – Hip ball and socket is incongruent because of growth abnormalities
  • Bloat – Stomach swells and can rotate; Also known as GDV or gastric dilatation and volvulus
  • OCD of the shoulder and elbow – Usually originates with growth abnormalities that cause bone chips or irregularities in the joint; A leading cause of arthritis 
  • Exercise-induced collapse – Hereditary, and there is a DNA test to check for affected dogs and carriers; Affected dogs collapse after only 15 to 20 minutes of activity
  • Distichiasis – Eyelashes growing in abnormal areas of the lid can scratch the eye
  • Diabetes – Acts similarly to the disease in cats and humans, but the process is different in dogs; Hereditary
  • Heart disease – Tricuspid valve dysplasia in the Labrador; Tricuspid valve regulates blood flow between two chambers of the right side of the heart, and its dysfunction can lead to congestive heart failure
  • Hot spots – Areas of the skin become weepy and raw from infection; Can start from fleas, allergies, and other skin problems
  • Tail problems – “Broken Tail” is a muscle strain or sprain of the tail; Tail appears fractured because it hangs at an abnormal angle; Causes can include swimming in frigid water over overexertion, and recovery is usually spontaneous
  • Central progressive retinal atrophy -Only in certain cat and dog breeds and humans, CPRA affects both retinas and eventually leads to blindness
  • Hypothyroidism – Low thyroid function
  • Muscular dystrophy – Labs carry the gene on the X chromosome (sex-linked heredity); Progressive muscle disease
  • Laryngeal paralysis – Cartilage of larynx collapses and obstructs the airway because surrounding muscles weaken from other disease processes like hypothyroidism
  • Ear infections and hematomas – Labradors can suffer ear infections with their hanging ears and love for water; Many ear infections in dogs may be secondary to allergies; If your Lab shakes her head a lot with a bothersome ear, a vessel in the flap may burst and lead to a pocket of blood or an ear hematoma
Labrador Retriever

13- Grooming and care

Labrador Retrievers are relatively low-maintenance dogs.

Their needs mostly focus on high-quality attention and exercise.

  • Moderate exercise – 45 to 90 minutes per day
  • Low grooming needs – Brush once or twice per week, bathe once a month; clip nails every 6 to 8 weeks
  • Check ears weekly unless chronic problems then more often
  • Brush teeth weekly – Start at an early age; Use canine toothpaste

14- How to feed your Labrador Retriever

You can feed your Lab in a few ways. There are several questions to answer at the outset.

  • How often – Feed puppies under three months 3 or 4 times a day, puppies 3 to 6 months three times a day, and dogs over six months 2 or 3 times daily
  • How much – Free choice, set volume, or calories
  • What – Commercial dry or canned, homemade cooked, raw commercial or homemade
  • Ingredients – Protein from animal sources should be the first ingredient; Ideally, fats should come from animal sources; Considerations for Labs with allergies, grain intolerance, and other special needs

Labradors should eat multiple meals a day because their conformation predisposes them to GDV.

Free Choice

In the old days, you may remember eyeballing your dog’s food and dumping a set amount into his bowl.

Many people still do that or fill their dog’s dish to the brim.

The problem is you do not know how much you are feeding your dog.

Moreover, a large dog with a big bowl can lead to him bolting food, gorging, and bloating.

The only time free-feeding works for a Labrador is if your dog eats small amounts of food at a time and walks away.

Also, your dog would, at the same time, need to maintain an ideal weight.

It does happen but is rare as many Labs are programmed to eat as much as they can in one sitting.

Volume and Your Dog’s Weight

The most common guideline a dog owner uses is to feed his or her dog a preset volume of food based on the Lab’s weight.

Often, you can use the dog food label or your veterinarian’s advice as a guideline.

Always compare recommendations on a label with what is happening with your dog.

If your dog seems to be gaining or losing weight on a particular regimen, decrease or increase volume, respectively.

Make all changes gradually and monitor over a week.

Work closely with your medical professional if you have any doubts.

Labrador Retriever face

Volume and Calories

Estimating caloric intake is the most accurate way to feed your dog.

Commercial labels will tell you how many calories are in a particular volume, usually based on a cup.

If you prefer to feed homemade or raw diets, caloric measurements of each ingredient make it easier to determine how much to feed.

Work with your veterinarian or an animal nutritionist to ensure that any home-prepared diet has a nutritional balance.

They will advise you in the addition of particular vitamins or minerals and which whole ingredients are healthiest for your Labrador.

A good base starting point for an adult spayed or neutered Labrador is about 1250 to 1660 calories per day.

Depending on the dog food, you may be looking at an equivalent of four to six cups.

Active dogs could require 2100 to 2300 calories, while field Labs may need almost 4000 calories daily.

If your Lab starts to lose his waistline or you can no longer feel his ribs, you will need to lower feeding amounts.

If your dog seems too thin or suffers large unexplained fluctuations in body condition, consult with your veterinarian.


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Veterinary Hospital Director at UCE
Dr. Marcelle is a general veterinarian with a Small Animal Medicine Specialty | Director of the UCE School of Veterinary Medicine | Certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society