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The Color of Labradors

Labradors originally were only black. Today they are also yellow and chocolate, though no (or virtually none) chocolate Labs exist among field Labradors in Great Britain.

Color is an important consideration when buying a Lab because many breeders — responding to an increased demand particularly for yellow Labs — are putting color foremost among considerations when deciding which dogs to breed.

This “playing to the market’’ can have, and has had, serious consequences for the breed.

Some background:

Color in Labradors is governed by a simple recessive structure.

It works this way.

  • Breed a yellow dog and a yellow bitch, and the litter will be entirely yellow.
  • Breed a black dog to a black bitch, with neither carrying the yellow gene recessively, and the offspring will be entirely black.
  • Breed a yellow bitch or dog to a black dog or bitch who does not carry the recessive yellow gene and the offspring will be entirely black, though each of the black puppies will carry the yellow gene recessively.
  • Breed a yellow dog or bitch to a black dog or bitch that carries the yellow gene recessively, and some of the offspring will be black and some likely will be yellow. Some of the black puppies will carry the yellow gene recessively, others will not.
  • Breed two black dogs who both carry the yellow gene recessively and perhaps a few of the offspring will be yellow, with the larger number, black. Again, some of the black offspring will carry the yellow gene, others not.

Women like yellow

Women like yellow Labradors.

In many cases, this is because the lighter-colored hair is less likely to show up on most carpets.

But it’s also true that yellow Labs have been widely depicted in women’s magazines and on TV commercials directed to women for more than 30 years. Their presence in the media is due largely to the fact that light-colored dogs photograph better than black dogs — particularly in advertising settings (such as those featuring, say, women’s makeup) in which camera exposures must be adjusted to pick up a wide range of colors and hues.

Other reasons may also underlie the popularity of yellow Labradors.

But the fact is, yellow is popular.

Given that fact, imagine yourself, for a moment, a Labrador breeder and you’ll see how the trend toward yellows has affected the breed as a whole, and, particularly, the quality of yellow Labradors.

You, the breeder, are at home or in your office and the phone rings. It’s a man on the other end, a prospective retriever buyer.

He asks whether you have puppies available.

“ Yes,’’ you say, “I have a litter of black puppies, with a male and a female not yet spoken for. These are from my best breeding animals — healthy, great looking dogs that I have bred before with great outcomes.’’

There’s a pause.

Then the caller asks, “Do you have any yellow Labs available?’’

“ No,’’ you say.

“ OK,’’ the caller says. And hangs up.

What’s going on here?

One of two things. Either the caller sincerely wants a yellow Lab, for personal reasons (perhaps he had one as a child). Or his decision to purchase a yellow Lab has been influenced by factors that should have no bearing on the decision-making process.

In many cases, those factors have to do with the man’s wife preferring yellow.

Or perhaps he once hunted with a buddy who had a great yellow Lab, and believes, mistakenly, that color had something to do with that dog’s abilities in the field.

In any event, our breeder, sitting at home or in his office, isn’t going to take too many more calls like the one he just received before it occurs to him that when someone asks whether he has any yellow puppies available, he better be prepared to say, “Yes.’’

Thinking color, not quality

Thus begins, for many breeders, a long slide down a very slippery slope.

Hoping to meet market demand, they put color at, or near, the top of their considerations when choosing breeding dogs.

Yet — if the goal is to produce excellent dogs (which should be the goal of all breeders) — color should be the last, or certainly among the last, consideration for a sporting dog breeder.

What qualities should a breeder consider?

Here’s a synopsis.

Health, of course, should be paramount. Retrievers being bred should have had their hips and elbows x-rayed and submitted to the OFA -— the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. The elbows should be "Normal" and the hips certified as “Good” or “Excellent” by the

Similarly, the breeder should do all of the DNA genetic testing for abnormalities that is available for Labradors.
These DNA tests currently include CNM/ARMD/PTPLA (Labrador Myopathy), PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy), RD (Inherited Retinal Dysplasia) OSD (OculoSkeletal Dysplasia), EIC (Exercise Induced Collapse), and Narcolepsy. Since all of our breeding stock is homozygous (meaning non-affected, non-carrier) for these abnormalities, we can guarantee that the dog you purchase from us is genetically free of these problems.

That’s just the beginning.

A breeding retriever should consist not only of good eyes, hips, elbows — and genetically free of defects — but should be put together in a manner that allows him or her to do his job in the field.

Retrieving dogs are, after all, athletes, and must be capable of moving powerfully through marshes thick with vegetation. They must also be built in a way that allows them to hunt the uplands aggressively.

Fundamentally, this is why sporting — or performance — Labradors and bench — or show — Labradors differ in appearance.

The former are working animals and must be constructed in ways that allow them to complete their work successfully on a consistent basis.

Show dogs, on the other hand, need not be able to run fast, jump fences or use their noses to find game.

Successful show dogs are, however, usually conformed with large, bold heads, deep chests, thick loins and, in the case of Labs, otter-like tails carried down.

Sporting dog breeders differ widely in the emphasis they place on appearance. Still, prospective retriever puppy purchasers should have a general understanding of appearance and how it relates not only to the “picture’’ a dog presents, but how it is tied to its ability to perform in the field.

Add to health and appearance considerations of soft mouth or hard, natural retrieving ability, intelligence and temperament -— to name a few — and it becomes clear that sincere, discriminating breeders have many factors to consider when selecting breeding dogs.

Yet, if those breeders are intent on producing yellow or chocolate puppies to meet market demand, they will necessarily put considerations of health, appearance, soft mouth, intelligence, natural retrieving ability and other important factors secondary to color.

This is the slippery slope we referred to earlier.

Color from another angle.

Let’s look consider color from another perspective.

Most retriever breeding in the U.S., as was mentioned earlier, is of the backyard variety. The remainder, a relatively small percentage, is done by professional breeders.

Yet even these breeders — most of them — are limited in the number of dogs available to them. A few have a handful of bitches that they own or control — say five animals or so — but very few have more than that.

Yet a conscientious breeder will have at least twice as many females available to him than he actually breeds. Preferably, in fact, the breeder would have three or four times more females than that.

Here’s why:

Finding dogs, male or female, that encompass the majority of traits a breeder deems important is difficult.

Finding perfect dogs, is, of course, impossible. But let’s say our breeder is sincere about wanting to produce puppies that are healthy (hips, eyes, elbows), pleasant in appearance (they look like Labradors should look, with nice heads and proportionate bodies), possess soft mouths, are natural retrievers, are intelligent, are biddable, and possess kind temperaments.

Let’s say also — and this is a critical point — that the breeder appreciates that a true companion retriever is not hyperactive. It does not incessantly jump in its kennel, barking. It does not whine. And it does not possess so much retrieving instinct that it can never be made to sit still for a prolonged period of time — as is commonly needed while duck, goose or dove hunting.

True, compromises are always made when selecting breeding animals. But if the goal is to produce excellent companion retrievers, breeding prospects should possess — or not possess — the above qualities.

But if a breeder only owns five female Labradors, and he believes he can sell puppies from all five, he will breed all five no matter their shortcomings.

If one and maybe two of the females is yellow, the breeder — realizing the market for yellows is strong — likely will breeds those animals with even less consideration of their overall qualities. He may even breed additional yellow females that don’t even meet his minimal requirements in a breeding animal.

Such breeders often make similar choices in their selection of stud dogs. Most breeders have only one or two studs. If one is yellow, or carries the yellow gene, compromises regarding its other traits may be made so the animal can be mated with a yellow female (or yellow-factored black female) to produce yellow puppies.

Which is why the knowledgeable retriever buyer, when he or she calls a breeder, won’t demand one color or another.

Rather, the buyer will ask questions of the breeder to determine, first, his values (what type of animal he’s trying to produce). Assuming those values are shared by the buyer, questions then should be asked to determine whether the breeder’s program has a strong likelihood of producing the type of dogs desired.

Ideally, if the breeder produces Labradors, he will tell the prospective buyer he breeds irrespective of color.

Ideally, the breeder will also tell the caller that his male and female breeding dogs have been carefully selected from among those he owns, and that each represents, to the highest degree possible, traits he desires in a retriever.

If among those animals are yellow Labrador dogs or bitches, the breeder should be able to justify their inclusion. Perhaps one or more came from a litter that had good, black parents. Perhaps both parents were yellow — and both were excellent dogs themselves, as were their parents and grandparents.

Whichever the case, color should not have been a factor in choosing them to be breeding dogs.

Next up: Part 5: Envision the Ideal Retriever

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