The Lab in the Show Ring

When Lab experts look at dogs in the show ring, they want to see dogs with overall balance: a good-looking head; good reach of neck; well-angulated shoulders; strong bone; tight, round feet; a solid topline; good depth through the ribcage; a thick, dense coat; and a fat otter tail. A well-built Lab is slightly longer than tall. And boy can he move! The following overview of the Lab standard will help you understand what's meant by some of these terms.

Head First

The Lab's clean-cut head has the appearance of a finely chiseled piece of sculpture. The skull and foreface are on parallel planes of almost equal length. A slightly pronounced brow defines the “stop” (discussed in the sidebar), and the skull is not in a straight line with the nose. A broad back skull ensures that there's plenty of room for brains — something the Lab has in abundance. The wide nose has well-developed nostrils for taking in scents. The nose should be black on black or yellow Labs and brown on chocolate Labs. It's okay if the nose color fades to a lighter shade, but a pink nose or one without any pigment (coloration) at all would be a disqualification in the show ring.

The stop is the indentation between the eyes where the nasal bones and cranium meet. The topline is the back. A round foot, also known as a cat foot, is compact with well-arched toes that are bunched tightly together.

The jaws are powerful, allowing the Lab to retrieve a bird as large as a wild goose. A scissors-bite (one in which the outer side of the lower incisors touches the inner side of the upper incisors) and correct neck construction are what give the breed its famous “soft mouth,” the ability to carry its quarry so tenderly that it leaves not a single toothmark. Teeth should be strong, and the dog should have all forty-two of them.

Framing the face are pendant, or hanging, ears that are set slightly above eye level. If you were to draw them across the Lab's face, they would reach only as far as the inside of the eye.

A three-year-old male black Lab.

Kind, friendly eyes embody the Lab's intelligent, alert, and friendly temperament. Neither protruding nor deep-set, the eyes are of medium size and placed well apart. In black or brown Labs they should be brown — the color of burnt sugar — with black eye rims. Chocolate Labs may have brown or hazel eyes with brown eye rims. Black or yellow eyes can give the Lab a harsh expression that's not typical of the breed.

Body Beautiful

The Lab's strong, muscular neck rises from the shoulders with a moderate arch. It should be just long enough to allow the Lab to retrieve game easily. A proper Lab neck is free of throatiness, defined as loose skin beneath the throat. A short, thick neck — also known as a ewe neck — is not desirable.

The shoulders need to have correct angulation if the Lab is to move properly. The standard says the shoulders should be well laid back, long and sloping. This means they should form an approximately ninety-degree angle with the upper foreleg. When the angulation is correct, the dog can move its front legs easily with strong forward reach. Ideally, the length of the shoulder blade should equal the length of the upper foreleg.

A two-year old black male shows off the breed's conformation standard.

A strong back allows the Labrador to work tirelessly all day. From the shoulders to the pelvic girdle, the back is level, whether the dog is standing or moving. A sloping back indicates too much angulation in the rear legs. Flexibility in the loin — the area between the ribs and the pelvic girdle — gives the Lab the athleticism that marks him as a sporting dog. A short loin with long ribbing allows good movement.

The underline is also straight, without much tuck-up, or waist, at the loin. Wide and strong, the loin joins with the powerful rear end to give the Lab an efficient, driving gait. The rump is nice and round, with short thigh muscles. The ribs curve out to make room for the heart and lungs.

From the side, the Lab's forechest should look well developed but not exaggerated. A chest that's too narrow gives the appearance of hollowness between the front legs. One that's too wide would give the Lab the look of a Bulldog. The correct chest tapers between the front legs so the dog can move without restriction.

Leg Work and Movement

Front legs are straight with strong but not excessive bone. Viewed from the side, the elbows should be directly beneath the withers, close to the ribs without being loose. Labs that are “out at the elbows” can't move freely. Strong, muscular hind legs have well-turned stifles (knees) and strong, short hocks (heels). The knee shouldn't slip out of place when the dog is moving or standing (a condition known as luxating patella). Labs with short, heavy-boned legs aren't typical.

Thick pads and well-arched toes support and protect the strong, compact feet in much the same way as good athletic shoes or hiking boots. Dewclaws, the additional toenails that are positioned up on the inside of the leg, may be removed if the breeder chooses. This is a minor procedure that's usually done with newborn pups, although dewclaws can also be removed at a later age, during any other routine surgery, such as spaying or neutering.

Economy of movement best describes the Labrador's gait, or the way he moves. Gait is the pattern of footsteps at various rates of speed, with each pattern distinguished by a particular rhythm and footfall. With elbows held neatly to the body, the Labrador moves straight ahead without pacing or weaving, covering plenty of distance with a long, smooth stride. From behind, it looks as if the hind legs are moving as nearly as possible in a parallel line with the front legs.

Coat and Color

One of the distinctive features of the Lab is his short, straight, dense coat of black, yellow, or chocolate. The double coat — a short, hard outer layer over a soft, warm undercoat — protects this avid water dog from cold, damp conditions as well as all types of ground cover and brush. It's acceptable for a Lab's coat to be slightly wavy down the back, but woolly, silky, or slick coats don't properly shed water, let alone the burrs and mud that this dog encounters in a typical day of playing or working hard.

A spectrum of Lab colors: a five-year-old yellow female, an eight-year-old chocolate female, and a seven-year-old black female.

It was once said that Labradors come in only three colors:“black, black, and black.” It's agreed, now, however, that good Labs come in all of the three accepted colors. Black Labs are solid black and should not have any brindle or tan markings. A small white spot on the chest is permissible but not desirable in the show ring. Yellow Labs come in varying shades, from pale cream to fox red. There's no such thing as a white Lab, although some yellow Labs are so creamy as to appear white. The shades of yellow may vary on the ears, back, and belly. The chocolate Lab also varies in color, ranging from light milk chocolate to the deep, shiny richness of the best Belgian chocolate.

Tail End

The otter tail is another distinctive physical characteristic of the Labrador. This type of tail is thick at the base, round and tapering toward the tip. It's of medium length and should extend no further than the hock.

The coat wraps thickly around the tail, giving it an unusual rounded appearance. The hair is parted or divided on the underside, with no feathering. The bottom of the tail should look flat, with the hairs interlacing to produce the flat appearance.

When a Lab is out of coat (a dog is said to be out of coat during seasonal sheds), the bottom of the tail may not wrap all the way from the tip to the base, but the last 2 or 3 inches at the base should always wrap.

When a Lab is swimming or moving, the tail is carried straight out from the body, never too high or too low. The tail completes the Lab's balanced look by giving the dog a flowing line from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.

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