Labradors for all seasons…
Show type or working type or something in-between? The Labrador retriever, the
most honest and biddable of all gundog breeds, can now range from a light-
boned, racey, worker to a sluggish, shortlegged heavyweight. Jeremy Hunt reports
show-ring. Jeremy Hunt talks to a Northumberland farmers wife who has devoted 20
years to breeding the true dual purpose Labrador
FOUR Labradors – three black and one chocolate – finally sprawl out on the floor of the farmhouse kitchen after delivering the enthusiastic welcome one expects from this most sociable of breeds.
Strong and well-boned with glorious heads, dark eyes, thick waterproof coats and that wonderful otter-tail – some would say typical labradors but these dogs are far more than that.
These are winners and workers; they include a champion and others that have achieved fistfuls of show bench awards. But what makes them different is that all these dogs, along with their kennel-mates, are just as happy putting in long days picking-up game during the winter months on some of Northumberlands best known shoots as they are bathing in the spotlight of top wins on the championship show circuit.
Linda Herons Labradors look like Labradors. That may seem an unecessary statement but this is a breed that is undergoing dramatic change. Some would even say there are now two distinct breeds within one – those bred for work and those bred for show.
Its an issue that is causing division within Labrador ranks.
"The breed was originally developed as a shooting dog and companion. It was neither a show dog nor a field trial dog. It was one breed.
"True Labradors are dual-purpose dogs being good looking companions and steady, biddable, workers," says Mrs Heron.
She farms with her husband John at Hope Farm, Longframlington, near Morpeth. Their beef and sheep farm is perched high on a hill top looking out over some of Northumberlands famous sporting countryside.
The popularity of the breed as purely a show dog has created a distinctly heavier and increasingly rather short-legged type. A show Labrador winning three challenge certificates (championships) earns the title show champion.
If its owner wishes it can enter for a qualifier trial which enables the dog to prove its basic working ability on shot game. Success here allows it to drop the show tag of its title and carry the prestigious champion status.
At the other end of the scale are the top field-trial kennels whose income is derived from sales of working dogs. Most have paid scant regard to appearance over many generations of breeding and concentrated on working style, pace and handleability as the main selection criteria.
* True character
In pursuit of these goals the majority of field trial breeders have mercilessly destroyed the true breed character of the Labrador. At hotly contested field trial stakes held during the winter months they seek sufficient wins to earn the title of Field Trial Champion for their dogs.
Mrs Heron has steered well clear of pure field trial lines. Over the years she has tapped into some of the few remaining dual purpose bloodlines and used stud dogs that could hold their own in the show ring and equally earn admiration in the shooting field.
Along with a band of other like-minded breeders she is trying to retain the balance between brains and beauty.
"For many years the average shooting man has been wooed by the competitive achievements of the top field trial kennels and has mistakenly believed that such a level of excellence would serve him equally well," says Mrs Heron.
She is concerned that the "fast action black whippets", designer-bred for field trials with speed and agility above all else, have lost many of the Labradors breed characteristics. Besides forfeiting many of the the physical requirements such as a double coat for warmth and weatherproofing and the thick, otter tail as an efficient rudder while swimming, the fizzy temperament of field trial dogs is alien to Labradors required to work steadily in the field and be easily trained by amateurs.
But, says Mrs Heron, the tide is turning and more shooting men, who enjoy their sport and their dogs companionship, are now demanding a Labrador that looks like a Labrador but still has the brains and ability to do an honest days work.
Her Brigburn kennel has proved it is possible to breed Labradors that can win in the ring at top level and still retain the natural instinct for demanding retrieving work throughout the winter as part of her picking-up team.
She has bred three champion Labradors – all have won their titles in the show ring and achieved their qualifier award in the field. All her dogs work each week during the season picking up on shoots in Northumberland where her dogs are well respected – even among the die-hard working purists.
* Work and show
"I want to work my Labradors and show them; I am not prepared to keep different dogs for different jobs. Thats why I breed for true dual-purpose characteristics," she says.
Mrs Heron feels that far too many genuine shooting enthusiasts buy dogs that are totally unsuitable. "They opt for a field trial bred dog because they assume that infers the highest level of working ability; but one of the measures of field trial ability is speed and for the average shot that is not necessary.
"Through naivety many end up with a dog they cant control because its just too hot for them to handle on a typical shooting day."
As she candidly puts it: "Over the last 50 years pheasants havent got any faster so why the preoccupation with speed in our gundogs?"
As she talks her famous champion dog Brigburn Zenny, a top winner in the show ring and a dog she describes as a wonderful worker, stretches out enjoying the comfort of the farmhouse.
He is a true Labrador with all the strength and depth that is the powerhouse of this working breed, and yet combined with an athletic frame and that all consuming melting expression, oozing intelligence and an uncanny knowingness as he glances up at his owner.
Mrs Heron says field trials are no longer measuring working ability within their original parameters. "Its now more like circus tricks; dogs are only just under control but are hyped up all day, waiting for the moment when they have to move immediately into top gear and retrieve a bird as quickly as possible to satisfy the judges." She believes most breeders of pure-field trial Labradors would admit to having little regard for the way their dogs look and in the past they have built reputations on field trial wins.
Now the average shooting man, particularly those who have experienced the disappointment of being unable to control a field trial Labrador, are demanding dogs with a steadier approach to work and ones that will be admired and not ridiculed for their looks.
"My advice to anyone seeking a Labrador as a shooting dog would be to aim for the middle ground. No one wants to live with a time-bomb that has a pedigree full of Field Trial champions but is awful to look at and impossible to handle on an ordinary shooting day."
A good looking dog with a level temperament and an honest approach to his work are achievable, says Mrs Heron.
Labradors from dual-purpose kennels are now in demand by shooting men, and a well known gamekeeper on a large Northumberland estate has recently used Mrs Herons Zenny to sire a litter. Its an encouraging sign that bodes well for the dual purpose Labrador – a pleasure to own and a great dog to shoot over.
Mrs Heron can be contacted on: (01665- 570631).