Labradors are a perenially popular breed with farming families. Jeremy Hunt considers why
To become the world’s most popular breed of dog certainly takes some doing, but no one can deny that the Labrador has truly earned its place at the top. In the UK, the Kennel Club registers over 36,000 Labrador pups every year and in the USA – where it has been the number one breed for the last 18 years – the American Kennel Club registers over 154,000.
So what is it that makes so many people want to share their lives with a Labrador? In the shooting field, the breed’s skill and versatility as a working gundog are legendary and its adaptability and generosity of spirit have won it an unassailable role as the ideal companion and family pet. But when all these qualities are combined with a deep intelligence and exceptional versatility, you have an animal that is as comfortable working as a guide dog for the blind, in search and rescue or in drug detection work as it is retrieving a cock pheasant or playing tag with the kids in the garden.
Having spent over 30 years breeding and training Labradors, I am still in awe of this breed. Their loyalty and willingness to please is humbling. Within the space of one week recently I had news of a dog I sent to Australia that had now become a Field Trial champion, another I sent to the USA that had just found a missing child during its work as a police search dog and an email from a man in Surrey to thank me for selling him a pup as a shooting dog that had become “the best friend I have ever had”.
But there is a downside to popularity. That waggy tail, melting expression and easy-going attitude belies a highly intelligent animal that for its own well-being must be properly but sympathetically trained to achieve a lasting and fulfilling partnership between dog and owner. It’s something that often fails to happen, which is why many thousands of “teenage” Labradors find themselves in rescue centres across the UK in need of new homes.
- The breed’s adaptability and generosity of spirit have won it an unassailable role as the ideal companion and family pet.
So if you have a Labrador that is bred from working bloodlines – as opposed to one bred from show dogs – it’s quite likely it may spend its life being very frustrated if it isn’t in a shooting home and so unable to fulfil its natural instincts to work. But there is a solution. By following simple approaches to training – and using the wide range of canvas training dummies and other equipment – it’s possible to simulate what the dog would be doing in the shooting field. It’s a wonderful way to turn frustration into fulfilment. Your hot-headed young Labrador can be given the stimulation and education its long been yearning – and life for both of you will never have been better.
But no two dogs are the same – some are “full-on”, some are more sensitive – and you must be aware of all their idiosyncrasies in your training.
Over a lifetime I’ve had some dogs that have been a dream to train and others that have been challenging, to say the least. It’s certainly hard to describe the feeling when you suddenly realise you’ve bred something that you know is special – and that usually happens when the pup is just a few months old. It’s what I describe as a “connection” between the two of you, almost as though someone has just wired you both together on the same circuit. The depth of understanding and the almost telepathic way you communicate is the nearest thing to actually being able to hold a conversation with the dog. He almost knows what you’re thinking – and sometimes even before you’ve even thought it.
But no matter how good or how difficult any dog may be to train, my approach has always been to use positive and sympathetic methods. And it always works. When things go wrong during training it’s not because the dog has done something deliberately bad; it will have gone wrong because the dog didn’t know what was expected of it. Punishing a dog for a lapse of memory or for being unaware of what was required will not correct the problem. Let’s not forget, either, that these are dogs, not humans (even we get it wrong a lot of the time). Trying to achieve a positive by applying a negative doesn’t work. And always remember that you should be aiming for a dog that works with you and not just a dog that works for you.
Jeremy Hunt’s new book Training the Working Labrador – The Complete Guide to Management and Training is published by Quiller Publishing at £19.95. Taking owners through every stage of training – from puppy to adulthood – it explains the successful approaches with emphasis on establishing a true partnership between dog and owner. With almost 100 colour photographs, it includes chapters on how to choose the right type of Labrador pup, feeding, rearing, management and fully explains the breed’s health testing schemes.