Lancashire’s love affair with the Labrador

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:54 11 January 2016

Fenway pups

Fenway pups

Not Archant

Labrador Retrievers bred in Lancashire are in demand around the world. Author and trainer Jeremy Hunt explains their enduring appeal

Fenway Brock in actionFenway Brock in action

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.

Lancashire folk certainly love Labradors. The thriving North West Labrador Retriever Club was set-up by Lancashire breeders and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2006 while thousands of Labradors have passed through the Guide Dog training school that was based at Bolton for 50 years but is now at Atherton near Manchester.

Fenway Lincoln with pheasantsFenway Lincoln with pheasants

And Lancashire produced the only Labrador to win the coveted Retriever Championship three years on the run. This major title for working Labradors was won by Field Trial Champion Breeze of Drakeshead owned by John and Sandra Halstead from Chorley who run the UK’s most successful kennel of field trial Labradors. 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 remarkable adaptability, you have a breed that is as comfortable working as a guide dog, in search and rescue or in drug detection as it is retrieving a cock pheasant on a shooting day or playing tag with the kids in the garden.

I established my Fenway kennel of Labradors in Lancashire over 30 years ago but 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 become a Junior Field Trial champion, another I sent to the USA that had just been involved in the search for a missing child during its work as a police search dog and an e-mail 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.’

There are two distinct types – working gundogs and those bred purely for the show ring. Working Labradors tend to be more athletic in appearance and have a deep commitment to do the job they were bred for. Labradors bred for the show ring are usually of rather heavier build – and their devotees would certainly say more ‘showy’ in appearance, if such a description could ever be given to this most genuine of all dog breeds.

Fashions come and go among dog breeds but the Labrador has an enduring appeal. If most Labrador owners were asked to give one reason why they love this breed it would probably be its reputation for good temperament. But while that ever waggy tail and melting expression – not forgetting the willingness to please – are iconic qualities of the breed, the Labrador is highly intelligent.

That may certainly trigger a chuckle among those who simply love their pet Labrador for what it is and don’t think they own a canine Einstein, but they should consider embarking on some form of training or activity to give their Labrador more to think about. And it could even spring a few surprises.

Certainly many Labradors kept purely as pets are bred from working bloodlines but are often considered to be rather hyper-active. The reason is simple. They were bred to work as gundogs and have an energy and a purpose that isn’t always fulfilled. In many cases they would be much happier and more settled if they were given something to satisfy their natural instincts.

My new book ‘Training the Working Labrador – The Complete Guide to Management and Training’ is aimed not only at those who want to train a Labrador as a working gundog but also at those who own a Labrador and who would like to improve their dog’s attitude by allowing it to engage in some basic gundog work. And that doesn’t mean you’ve got to start shooting pheasants! There’s a huge range of training equipment available including canvas dummies and “rubber” birds that simulate the real thing. All you need is an open space, a whistle and the right equipment – and suddenly owning a Labrador could take on a totally new dimension.

But no two dogs are the same – some are “full-on” while some are more sensitive – and you must be aware of all their idiosyncrasies during 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 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 had the thought!

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 help him learn more quickly. And let’s not forget that these are dogs, not humans. And 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.

Shooting stars

The Labrador Retriever – to give it its full name - originates in north Canada. The first dogs arrived in the UK on cargo boats over 150 years ago but it was when their swimming skills were noticed by the Earl of Malmesbury, who was keen on his wildfowl shooting, that these dogs started to be bred from and used to retrieve game from water. Their reputation as all round gundogs was soon acknowledged and eventually they were named after their place of origin – Labrador. Training the Working Labrador - The Complete Guide to Management and Training has just been published with 100 colour photos by Quiller, priced £19.95. To discover more go to www.fenwaylabradors.co.uk

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