Labrador Retrievers: Wonderful Family Pets and Companions
Labrador Retrievers as Pets
Dogs have been members of my family for many years. During that time, Labrador Retrievers of all three colours have lived with us. We've had two yellow, one chocolate, and one black Lab in the family. We've brought so many Labs into our home because we love the breed.
Labrador Retrievers make great family pets and companion animals. They are clever dogs with a playful, friendly, and affectionate nature. They get on well with people of all ages, including children, and also get on well with other pets. They are usually energetic animals with a healthy appetite and require quite a lot of exercise. Most Labs love water, swimming, and retrieving. They are eager to please their humans and love to take part in family activities.
The Labrador Retriever breed originated in Canada's most easterly province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was originally know as a St. John's dog. St. John's is the capital city of Newfoundland.
Types of Labrador Retrievers
In addition to the different colours of Labrador Retrievers, there are two lines. These can look quite different from one another. The show or English line dogs are generally stockier and have shorter legs and wider faces than the field or American line dogs. Field dogs are leaner and longer legged animals with a longer and narrower face. Some dogs seem to fall in between these two types.
All Labs can make lovely pets if they receive suitable training. It's often said that females are more independent than males while males like to stay closer to their owners, but some Lab experts say this depends on the dog's genetics more than its gender.
Male Labs generally reach a maximum weight of 65 to 80 (or even 90) pounds. Misha is a small male and weighs 65 pounds (provided I'm careful with his food intake and give him enough exercise). The weights of females range from around 55 to 70 pounds. The dogs are about 21 to 23 inches high at the shoulders, although Misha is a little lower.
Most Labs have wonderful personalities. As is true for all dogs, however, training from an early age is necessary in order to bring out their best qualities. Bad socialization or lack of training when a dog is a puppy may result in an adult with undesirable behaviours.
The Characteristics of a Labrador Retriever
Although there are always some dogs that are unusual for their breed, in general Labs have a strong retrieving instinct. They like to mouth objects and to carry them around, so they should be given lots of safe toys to play with. If there are transport jobs around the home that they can do—such as bringing their owner his or her slippers—they will usually be very happy to help. They also enjoy finding objects that have been deliberately hidden. Hide and Seek is a fun game for them, especially if the hidden object is edible.
Labrador Retrievers generally get on well with other animals. The ones in my family have been friends with our cats and have tolerated our birds, who have been free-flying during the day when family members are around. One of our birds landed on Simba, a yellow lab, during a flight. Simba was surprised by the incident but stayed calm.
Labs require regular exercise. They love swimming and are strong swimmers. They may try to enter every patch of water that they find during a walk. They tend to have a large appetite, so their diet should be monitored carefully to avoid obesity.
Labs have a tendency to be barkers if they aren't trained. They are good watch dogs, but they are usually too friendly to make good guard dogs. They have gentle mouths, provided they're trained to be calm with their mouths even when they are excited.
It's very important to control the amount of food that is given to a Lab. The breed certainly loves to eat! If Labs eat too much and don't exercise enough, they can become obese. It's especially important to watch the body weight of show line dogs, who are naturally bulkier than field line dogs. Some "stocky" dogs are actually overweight.
It goes without saying that a Lab should be fed healthy food. There is a lot of debate about the ideal diet for a dog, however. Both a Lab's breeder and their vet should be consulted about the advisability of feeding dry, canned, cooked, or raw food, the proportion in which these should be given, and the brands of food that should be bought.
Exercise for Your Pet
Even though the personality of a well-bred and well-trained Labrador makes it an appealing pet, it's best not to get a Lab if there's no one in the family who can give the pet regular exercise. Most of the exercise sessions should be longer and harder than just a walk around the block (although this type of exercise is perfect for an older dog). The lifespan of a Lab is around twelve years, but some have lived considerably longer.
Labrador Retrievers are often strong animals with strong necks, so leash training from the puppy stage is very important. It's not fun taking a dog for a walk if he or she is pulling on the leash. Puppy training classes are a great idea if someone feels that they need extra help in training or socializing their dog.
Grooming and Skin Care
A Lab's coat is short and dense and is easy to care for. A regular brush is generally all that's required to keep the coat in good condition. Grooming can be a pleasant and relaxing activity for both the dog and the groomer. It's a great way to bond with a dog when it's done regularly. It's also a chance for the groomer to detect any skin problems in the dog, such as cuts, warts, lumps, and hot spots.
Lumps should always be checked by a vet. There's a good probability that they're harmless, but they may not be. All the lumps that my Labs have experienced have been filled with fat and have been harmless. I continue to get any new ones checked, however. If a lump is cancerous, it's important to get it removed before the cancer spreads through the body.
A hot spot is a red, moist, and uncomfortable patch on a dog's skin. The inflammation may develop due to an allergy, an insect bite, or a skin infection. The dog may frequently lick or nibble the area in an attempt to relieve the discomfort, which makes the irritation even worse. A vet visit is often required to treat a hot spot.
Grooming and caring for the visible parts of a dog's body is important, but it's also important to look at the pads on the bottom of the paws to check for any problems.
Teeth, Nails, and Ears
Teeth and nail care are very necessary for a pet dog. Dog toothbrushes and toothpaste that tastes nice to a dog are sold in pet stores. The stores also sell nail clippers. Veterinary assistants will probably cut your dog's claws if you don't want to do it yourself, although there will be a fee for this service. Ears need to be cleaned, too, but it's important that this isn't done too often and that the ears aren't cleaned too deeply.
The ASPCA website mentioned in the "References" section below gives advice about a dog grooming and cleaning schedule. It also gives tips about the best way to perform a dog care routine.
Anybody who brings a pet into their family should be prepared for vet expenses. These include not only the cost of regular checkups but also of potential emergencies. Emergency pet care can be very expensive.
Insurance schemes for vet visits are available. It's important to be clear about what these schemes cover before signing up for one of them. Although it's not a nice topic to think about, it's vital to investigate how insurance would help in a serious situation like cancer treatment. A pet emergency savings fund could also be useful for vet expenses.
Any family with a dog should know dog first aid procedures and the route to the nearest emergency clinic for pets. The operating hours of emergency clinics should also be known.
Special Activities for Labs
Since Labs are usually intelligent and friendly, they are ideal helpers for people with difficulties. They are trained as guide dogs for blind people and as assistance dogs. Misha came from a breeder who bred her dogs for the PADS program (Pacific Assistance Dogs Program), which trains dogs to help people with disabilities.
Labs are sociable animals and sometimes act as therapy dogs. Their strong retrieving instinct and love of water makes them a good companion for hunters. They also compete in show events, obedience trials, and agility competitions.
An agility event requires dogs to complete a timed course involving obstacles such as weave poles, tunnels, jumps, and items to climb. Whenever I watch an agility competition, the dogs always look like they are having fun. It's an enjoyable event for the spectators, too.
Pets must be trained correctly for dog sports in order to prevent injury. My sister took Owen to a few training classes for dog agility competitions. He seemed to enjoy the activity, but neither my sister nor I had time to continue his training. It's important that a dog enjoys agility or other special activities if we ask him or her to participate in them.
Labrador retrievers sometimes develop osteoarthritis. This is a condition in which the cartilage lining the bones in a joint breaks down. The cartilage acts as a cushion that helps the bones in the joint to glide smoothly over each other during movement.
Hip Dysplasia and Osteoarthritis
In general, Labradors are healthy dogs. They do have a tendency to develop hip or elbow dysplasia, however. This is a condition in which the head of a bone fails to fit into its socket correctly due to a malformation of the joint. The problem can cause pain, inflammation, and eventually osteoarthritis, although the amount of discomfort varies. Some dogs don't seem to be in pain even though x-rays show bad dysplasia, while others may be in such great discomfort that surgery is necessary to improve the condition of the joint.
It's important to buy a puppy from a good breeder who tries to eliminate joint problems in his or her breeding program. A puppy's parents should be certified free of hip dysplasia. One organization that provides an acceptable certification is OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals). It's a good idea to investigate the health of the grandparents as well as the parents. Even if the parents' and grandparents' joints are healthy, there is no guarantee that a pup will remain free of hip dysplasia. The probability is increased, however.
In order to decrease the chance of joint problems or at least of joint pain, dogs should be kept lean and a puppy shouldn't exercise excessively or with a repetitive motion. That's one reason why it's usually recommended that a dog doesn't begin jogging with its human until it's at least one year of age. Joint injuries at a young age may stimulate the development of hip dysplasia symptoms.
I describe osteoarthritis in my dogs below. My dogs' experiences with the disorder may not be the same as yours. It's important that you consult a vet and ask them about treatment if your pet has the problem.
Osteoarthritis in my Labrador Retrievers
Bess was my previous Labrador Retriever. She had hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis, but these didn't cause serious problems until she was around fourteen or fifteen years old. Misha was only seven when one of his joints became painful and his movement was affected. He was subsequently diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
Happily, Misha's pain and movement problem have disappeared, although continued treatment is needed to keep him pain-free and mobile. He receives a daily canine supplement containing glucosamine, chondroitin, and manganese, daily MSM and omega-3 fatty acid supplements, and a periodic injection of cartrophen.
It may be that not all of the above treatments are required in order to help Misha, but he's doing so well that I don't want to make any changes at the moment. The frequency of the cartrophen injections has been reduced, however, (as is recommended after the initial treatment period), with no apparent ill effects. The cartrophen is most likely the major contributor to Misha's improvement because if we are late with the injection his symptoms reappear. Perhaps some or all of the other components of the treatment are helping as well.
It's important that you ask your vet about appropriate treatments for your dog if he or she has osteoarthritis. In addition to being able to describe the pros and cons of each available medication and treatment, the vet will know about new treatments that have appeared.
Possible Osteoarthritis Treatments in Dogs
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are natural chemicals found in the cartilage of both dogs and humans, including the cartilage in joints. The benefits of glucosamine or chondroitin for osteoarthritis when given as nutritional supplements are unknown. Some people involved with dogs say that one or both of the chemicals help their dogs while others say that they don't. There is some evidence that an injectable form of chondroitin sulphate may help to maintain cartilage.
MSM or Methylsulfonylmethane and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
MSM is also a natural chemical in the body. As a supplement, it may reduce the inflammation present in osteoarthritis. Once again though, this is uncertain. Like the two chemicals mentioned above, MSM isn't considered to be harmful when taken at recommended doses. Side effects of all the medications are reported to be mild, if in fact there are any, so I continue giving them to Misha for now. Omega-3 fatty acids are also thought to reduce inflammation and help joints.
Cartrophen or Pentosan Polysulphate Sodium
Cartrophen Vet is a brand name for pentosan polysulphate sodium. This is a semi-natural chemical based on one obtained from the bark of beech trees. Both scientific and anecdotal evidence show that cartrophen can be beneficial for canine osteoarthritis. How it does this is uncertain, but researchers have found that it has a number of effects that may protect cartilage in joints. Many people report that cartrophen has been very helpful for their pets. I wish the chemical had been available when Bess was alive.
One reason why regular vet visits are important is that a pet owner may not notice a health problem in their pet. The vet may notice the problem and suggest treatment, sometimes before the condition has become serious.
Other Potential Health Problems in Labs
Labrador Retrievers sometimes develop eye problems such as cataracts, even at a young age. They may also develop PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy), a condition in which the retina deteriorates. This problem doesn't develop until a dog is an adult. Another possible eye problem is retinal dysplasia, a condition in which the retina doesn't develop properly. A puppy's parents should be certified clear of eye problems.
Labs may also suffer from less common health problems, such as a luxating patella, a disorder in which the kneecap moves out of position. There is a small possibility of autoimmune deafness developing in later life. This happened to Bess, who lost her hearing for no apparent reason. It didn't seem to affect her enjoyment of life, though.
A Lovely Pet
A well-bred and properly trained Labrador Retriever is a lovely pet. This is why my family has had four members of the breed over the years. Labs are loyal, loving, and (if trained) well mannered dogs. They need to be involved in family activities and love to be given jobs that fit in with their instincts, such as retrieving and carrying. They require a healthy diet and careful monitoring of their food intake, as well as adequate exercise, but in return they will be a wonderful companion for people of all ages.
References and Resources
- Labrador Retriever facts from PetMD
- Dog grooming tips from ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)
- Pet first aid from the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association)
- Chondroprotective agents (including pentosan polysulphate sodium and a reference to chondroitin sulphate) from the Merck Veterinary Manual
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Linda Crampton