Finding a nice, healthy pedigree Labrador puppy requires planning and patience. Buying a Labrador from a bad breeder could leave you with a dog with a whole host of health complications down the line.
But how do you tell a good breeder from a bad breeder, and what are some things to look out for when buying a Labrador puppy?
To help you find your perfect Lab, we have put together this Labrador buyer’s guide that will cover everything you need to know about purchasing one of these fantastic, friendly dogs.
How To Use This Labrador Buyer’s Guide
This buyer’s guide is long and includes lots of information from where to find a good breeder, to what problems you may encounter and the history of the Labrador. Below you can find a handy table of contents, so you can skip to the section you want to read (or just read it all).
The History of the Labrador
To start with let’s look at the history and origins of the Labrador. While many believe that the Labrador breed’s origins started with the Newfoundland dog, it is now believed by many that they originated from smaller fisherman’s dogs.
American Labrador enthusiast and trainer Richard Wolters wrote a detailed history of the Labrador Retriever in 1981. During his research he discovered that there were originally no native dogs on the island of Newfoundland when the first settlers arrived.
The majority of these early settlers to Newfoundland were tough fishermen and hunters from Devon in the South West of England. Wolters believes that when these settlers came to Newfoundland from England, they brought their hunting dogs with them.
These hunting/fishing dogs with their dense oily coats would become known as the St John’s Water Dog, the true ancestor to the Labrador and the Newfoundland.
The St. John’s Water Dog
Prior to the arrival of permanent settlers from Europe, Newfoundland was a summer fishing colony. The abundant supply of fish was so prized by the British Authorities that for a long time permanent settlement of the island was discouraged and even prohibited at some points.
Despite this, a number of fishermen and hunters defied the authorities and decided to settle down on the wild, untamed landscape. To survive on the island, they developed a heavy reliance on the dogs they brought with them.
By breeding from the smartest, healthiest and strongest dogs, the settlers created one of the most useful breeds out there, the St. John’s Water Dog. The breed would soon develop a reputation for its abilities on both land and in the water.
St John’s were trained to retrieve nets, lines, ropes and in some cases they even retrieved fish underwater that had slipped from their hooks. The breed worked alongside humans and were vital to life on Newfoundland.
The First Labradors
With such a wide skillset, the St. John’s Water Dog was imported into the United Kingdom by breeders, kennels, and aristocracy. Three such men would become key to the development of the modern Labrador.
James Edward Harris
This man was the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury and when he was not at parliament, he devoted his time to the sport of shooting. He saw the potential of the St. John’s Water Dog for shooting and decided to import them in the early 1800s.
Walter Scott & John Scott
The second key players in the development of the Labrador Retriever were Walter Scott, the 5th Duke of Buccleuch and his brother Lord John Scott. Walter established his kennel in Scotland in around 1835 with St. John’s Water Dogs from Newfoundland. While these early dogs were technically St. John’s dogs, the first documented use of the Labrador name at the kennel occurred in 1839.
Among the dogs that were imported into the UK by the brothers was Jock, Nell and Brandy. Brandy earned his name when he was being transported across the Atlantic ocean. He jumped overboard into rough water to retrieve one of the crew’s caps. It took the crew over two hours to find and pick up the dog, who was so exhausted that they had to revive him with Brandy (hence the name).
The earliest known photograph of the Labrador Retriever breed was of Nell in 1856, when she was around 12 years old. Interestingly, as you can see from the photo above Nell featured a white muzzle and paws, a common trait of Labradors/St. John’s Dogs from the period that is not desirable in modern day Labrador Retrievers.
The Labrador Name
It is not known exactly why the St. John Dog & Labrador names were used interchangeably for some dogs during this time. However, the most likely reason is that the dogs came from Newfoundland, which was often labelled as part of the Labrador region.
The Establishment of the Labrador Breed
While James Edward Harris and the Scott brothers were instrumental in the development of the Labrador, it wasn’t until a chance meeting between the sons of Harris and Walter Scott that the breed would truly become established. According to records of the Buccleuch Estate, William Scott and James Howard Harris met whilst shooting in the late 1800s.
James Howard Harris gave two male retrievers to William Scott as a gift who then proceeded to mate them with the female dogs at his father’s kennel. The puppies created from this meeting would lead to the development and establishment of the modern Labrador breed we know and love today.
Up until the late 1800s all Labradors were black, however, in 1892 two ‘liver coloured’ dogs would be born at the Buccleuch Kennel of the Scott family. These two liver coloured Labs would be followed by a yellow dog named Ben of Hyde that was born at the kennel of Major C.J. Radclyffe in 1899.
While the two liver coloured dogs could be seen as the first brown Labradors, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that chocolate Labs would become established in the United Kingdom.
The Labrador’s Popularity Grows
With the mating between William Scott and James Howard Harris’s dogs, the Labrador soon became common in the United Kingdom. As was the case with the St. John’s Water Dog, the Labrador breed proved to be an excellent worker and was incredibly popular with hunters and sports shooters alike.
By 1903 the Labrador Retriever was popular enough to be recognised by the Kennel Club in England. The Labrador Club was then setup in England with the support from Lord Knutsford (Munden Kennel line) and Lady Lorna, Countess Howe (Banchory Labradors).
Labradors in America
While the first Labrador was registered in the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1917, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the breed started to become popular. This was largely down to an article created by the AKC in 1928 called “Meet the Labrador Retriever”.
By 1931 the Labrador Retriever Club was established in the United States and the first American field trials for the breed were held at the Glenmere Court Estate in Chester, NY.
The Labrador Retriever’s popularity in America continued to increase over the coming decades with a massive surge in the 1940s. By 1991, the Labrador was the most popular dog registered with the AKC, a title that the breed still holds today.
Despite the breed’s origins in hunting and fishing, the Labrador is now known more as a family friendly pet that is good with not only children, but other animals as well.
While the Labrador is incredibly popular as a family dog, they are also known as excellent workers. They are used as guide dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs and much more.
With the history out of the way, let’s take a quick look at the appearance of the modern Labrador breed. They are a medium-large breed of dog with males typically weighing in anywhere from 29 to 36 kg (65 to 80 lb), while females are usually 25 to 32 kg (55 – 70 lb).
You will find that the reported height of Labrador Retrievers varies depending on where you get the information from.
- American Kennel Club (AKC) – 57 to 62 cm (22.5 to 24.5 in) for females and 55 to 60 cm (21.5 to 23.5 in) for females.
- The Kennel Club (KC) – 56 to 57 cm (22 in) for males and 55 to 56 cm (22 in) for females.
- Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) – 56 to 57 cm (22 in) for males and 54 to 56 cm (21 to 22 in) for females.
A Labrador Retriever’s coat should be short and dense, but not wiry. The coat is also slightly dry and oily, making it water-resistant, so that the dog does not get cold when in water.
Head, Body & Jaws
Labrador Retrievers should have a broad head with slightly pronounced eyebrows. Their eyes should be brown/hazel in colour and the lining around the eyes should be black. The ears should be slightly above the eyes and they should hang close to the head.
A Labrador’s jaws should be strong and powerful, while the muzzle should be of medium length and not too pointy.
When it comes to the body it should be muscular and powerful. The tail should be very thick towards the base, then tapering off to a point towards the end. Additionally, the tail should be of medium length.
What About Labrador Colours?
According to the American Kennel Club there are three main colours that Labradors come in:
While these are the three main colours, there are also some more colours that are not officially recognised. These colours include the following:
The non-standard colours above are often linked to a skin disease known as Colour Dilution Alopecia. Despite not being recognised by the American Kennel Club, Silver, Charcoal and Champagne coloured dogs are becoming more popular with breeders, however, they are still rare.
If you would like to know more about the colours of a Labrador, make sure you check out our “Which Labrador Colour is the Best?” article.
Buying a Labrador Retriever
In the next sections we will be looking at what you need to know about buying a Labrador Retriever and how to get the healthiest one you can.
Budgeting for a Labrador
Before you even consider buying a Labrador it is important to consider your budget. This budget not only includes the cost of buying a Labrador Retriever, but also the ongoing costs of owning a dog. If you can’t afford the ongoing costs of owning a dog do not purchase a Lab.
When it comes to the upfront cost of purchasing a Labrador Retriever it really depends on where you live, which breeder you go to and how much of a demand there is. For instance, we purchased our two thoroughbred Labs for NZ$500 and NZ$800 (we live in New Zealand) from the same breeder.
To get an idea of how much you need to spend on a good Labrador in your location/country, we recommend that you find some good breeders and investigate how much they charge for a Labrador puppy.
The Ongoing Costs of Owning a Labrador
This is where the real cost to owning a dog is. The price of food, tips to the vets, toys and more all adds up quickly. Additionally, if your dog develops any adverse medical conditions you may have to deal with paying for the ongoing costs of treatment (which can be very expensive and may be for the entire life of the dog).
Is Health Insurance for a Labrador Worth it?
This is a tricky question to answer. We did not have health insurance for our first Labrador and it probably worked out better for us (there were some big costs, but in the end the insurance would have worked out to be more expensive).
However, for one of our dogs we own at the moment the health insurance as definitely worth it. He racked up a vets bill for nearly $10,000, which was luckily covered by the insurance.
If you do not plan on getting insurance, we suggest that you start an emergency fund for your Labrador. Put the money that you would have spent on insurance into the fund each week/month and don’t touch it unless an emergency comes up.
Making Sure You Have Enough Time
Owning a Labrador not only costs you money, but also costs you time. Many people struggle to find enough time for their friends and family, let alone a dog as well, so if you are one of those people you should reconsider purchasing a Labrador.
The most time-consuming period will be when your Labrador is a puppy. They need to be trained and cared for, which can take up a lot of time during the day. Young puppies will also need to go to the toilet every 2 or 3 hours, so it is a good idea to have somebody at home at all times who can look after them.
Once your Labrador gets a bit older they will need less time, however, you still need to take them out for walks everyday, feed them, play with them and more.
Another option for those with limited time is to hire somebody who can look after your dog during the day. You can also ask a friend or relative to look after your Labrador, or you could take them to “doggy daycare” when they are a bit older (most places require your dog to be neutered).
Will a Labrador Suit Your Lifestyle?
This sort of ties in with the above. If you like to sleep in on the weekends, travel a lot or spend lots of time away from your home it is probably not a good idea to purchase a Labrador. Additionally, if you don’t like dealing with lots of mess and smell a Labrador isn’t probably for you. While you can clean your Lab regularly, they will always have a particular “doggy” smell about them that some people simply don’t like.
Additionally, if you do not believe you can train your dog you should not get a Labrador as a poorly trained one can be a nightmare. Another thing to consider is your personal fitness. If you can’t see yourself going for walks everyday or are simply not strong enough to deal with a boisterous puppy then you should probably look at another breed.
Does a Labrador Suit Your Family
If you have a young family and are expecting another child, it can be difficult to deal with owning and raising a puppy at the same time. While Labradors are excellent family pets, they are a bit like having a toddler.
A young Labrador puppy can also be easily hurt by an overly excited toddler and vice versa. However, don’t let this put you off completely, just remember that owning a Labrador takes a lot of work and that you need to train both your puppy and your kids on how to interact with each other.
Making Sure You Have Enough Space
While Labradors don’t need as much space as some other breeds, they still need quite a bit of room to move about and play. If you plan to keep your Labrador in a small confined space all day don’t bother as it will probably make them miserable.
The amount of space a Labrador will need can also depend on their personality. One of our Labs likes to run and play all day, while the other just likes to sit in the lounge and watch TV. If you have an active dog they will need more space to move about in.
Having a garden that your dog can run and play in but can’t escape from is important but not completely necessary. For those without a garden or for those who live in apartments it is important to take your Labrador Retriever out for a good sized walk once a day (preferably twice). Additionally, if you do not have a garden you need to remember to take your dog out to go to the toilet regularly.
Picking Between a Male or Female
When it comes to choosing a Labrador you need to decide on whether you want a female or a male. Male Labradors tend to be more muscular and larger in size when compared to females (although our boy is actually smaller than his sister).
Another thing to be aware of is that female Labradors have two heat cycles every which means they will act slightly differently and shed more.
Behavioural differences between male and female dogs is often overblown and is more down to how they are raised and trained. However, non-neutered male dogs are usually more dominant and high-spirited, but this is not always the case. Additionally, male Labradors tend to roam a bit more if left unsupervised or on a property that is unfenced.
Neutering females is slightly more expensive than neutering a male. Older unneutered females are more prone to a serious and potentially deadly condition called pyometra, so keep that in mind.
Despite the above, picking between a male or female Labrador really comes down to personal preference and availability.
Deciding What Type and Colour You Want
Despite popular opinion, there really isn’t a difference intelligence and personality between the different colours of Labradors. However, from a study conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association it was found that chocolate coloured Labradors experienced a higher risk of health related problems than black or yellow labs. They also found that on average chocolate Labs tend to have shorter lifespans.
For example, they discovered that the lifespan of the other two colours was around 12.7 years, whereas chocolate Labradors only lived until about 10.7 years, a difference of more than 10 percent.
A major contributor to this discrepancy may be down to the fact that a higher percentage of chocolate Labs come from ‘backyard breeders’ who create inbred dogs. This leads to more chocolate Labs developing health problems compared to black and yellow dogs.
If you buy a Chocolate Labrador Retriever from a good breeder, chances are they will be just as healthy as a yellow or black Lab. With this being the case, colour is really down to personal preference.
What About the Non-standard Colours?
As we mentioned earlier, Silver, Charcoal and Champagne coloured Labradors are becoming more popular with breeders across the world. While these colours are fine you may have to go to a less reputable breeder to get one (not recommended). Additionally, these colours are not recognised by most kennel clubs so they can’t be entered in many shows or competitions.
If you can find a good breeder who produces these colours you should be able to get a healthy dog (just do your research about the breeder).
Are There Different Types of Labrador?
While there is officially only one Labrador breed it is broken up into two different types, the English Lab and the American Lab. English Labradors come from English bred stock and they tend to be heavier and bulkier than their American counterparts. American Labradors tend to feature taller and lankier bodies.
The differences between the two types of Labradors don’t stop with the appearance. American Labs are usually more active as they were originally bred for working and field trials. This means that they will normally need more exercise and attention. English Labradors tend to be more laid back.
Which is Healthier, An English or American Labrador?
Whether your purchase an English or American Labrador you can expect them to live anywhere from 10 to 12 years on average (our previous English Lab hit 17 years old!). Despite being slimmer than English Labradors, American ones are just as likely to suffer from obesity as they love food just as much.
Which Labrador Should I Pick?
Once again this really comes down to you and your family. Are you looking for a more active canine companion? Or are you looking for a more laid back family dog?
Despite the differences between American and English Labradors, the biggest factor in how they act is their personality. We have one incredibly active English Lab while the other one is on the opposite end of the spectrum (about as lazy as you can get). There is no guarantee that you will get an active American Lab and vice versa, so pick the best one you like/can find.
Finding a Labrador Breeder
This is one of the most important parts of the process as going through a bad breeder can lead to a dog with a whole host of health problems and the costs associated with that. Finding a good breeder can be difficult, especially if you do not have any contacts or previous experience.
The first place to look is at your local Labrador breeder group or club. Here you should be able to find some experienced breeders who may have some puppies available or know where you can get a good one.
From here you can investigate further to see if they meet the standards you are looking for. Most countries have a kennel club where you can check a list of reputable breeders, so you can see if the breeder you are interested in is on the list. For example, here is a Breeder Finder for American buyers.
Most breeders will also have a Facebook/social media account and many have their own websites as well. If this is the case, try to get a bit more information from these places and see if they have any pictures/videos of their current and previous dogs.
Contact Some Breeders
It is a good idea to contact a few different breeders to get an idea of the process and to compare them. Let the breeder know you are interested in a pedigree Labrador and tell them about your needs/wants (colour, type, male or female, etc.).
You should also ask the breeder a few questions about their dogs and current plans for any future litters:
- Do you have a litter of puppies available now or are there any planned in the near future?
- How many dogs do you breed from?
- What are the parents like?
- Do you bring fresh Labradors into the breeding mix? (the breeder of our Labrador periodically brings in new Labradors from overseas to ensure there is no inbreeding)
- What Colour puppies do you have or you think the next litter will be?
It is important to remember that very good breeders who are in demand will usually have all of their puppies booked before they are born, so you may have to wait.
Go through the breeders on your list and make contact with as many of them as you can. You will soon have another list of breeders you like with Labrador puppies available now or in the future.
Using a Stud (Male Breeding Dog) to Find a Good Litter
Another way to find good Labrador puppies is to find a nice stud. If you like the look of a particular stud you can then try to find out which females he has been mated with. Reputable breeders will often send you photos of their stud or they may even let you meet their dog.
If the stud has been mated with lessor known breeder’s female Labradors it is important to do your homework on them. It is just as important to make sure the mother is from good stock as the farther.
What Makes a Good Breeder?
As we wrote just above it is important to ask lots of questions to work out if the breeder you are talking to is reputable. Below we have listed some things that a good breeder will have and/or do:
- Check the health of their breeding stock regularly
- Take excellent care of their animals
- Be picky about who they sell their puppies to (in some cases they may even do full on interviews with potential buyers)
- Have a great knowledge of dogs and the Labrador breed
- Open to any questions you may have
- Happy to provide lifetime support and advice
- Introduce you to all the puppies in their litter/litters and to the mother and farther (if the farther is there)
- Diverse breeding stock (parents from different backgrounds)
- Makes sure their puppies have plenty of human contact
What Makes a Bad Breeder?
Now that we have looked at some things that make a good breeder, here are some things that make a bad breeder:
- Breeder hasn’t or doesn’t carry out health checks on their breeding stock
- They don’t ask questions about you and your family
- The breeder has lots of litters each year (some good breeders will have a couple of litters a year if they have lots of Labs to breed from, but this is generally a big warning sign)
- The breeder sells their puppies to a store
- They can’t tell you where they got their breeding stock from
- Breeding stock is not from a diverse background
- The breeder won’t let you see the parents, especially the mother
- They have lots of dogs of different breeds
- The puppies are unclean or live in a dirty environment
- The breeder arranges to meet you away from the puppy’s home
- Puppies are under or overweight
- The breeder won’t share the details of the vet
- The breeder asks you to take the puppy home early (earlier than 8 weeks)
- The breeder tries to sell you multiple puppies when you only want one
- The breeder says they are registered with the local/national kennel club but can’t back it up with any evidence
Temperament, Health & Ability
Once you have found a few suitable litters of puppies from a selection of good breeders it is important to check the three following credentials:
While Labradors tend to be very friendly dogs it is important to check the temperament or personality of any puppy or litter you are interested in. Labradors are strong powerful dogs and they can easily overwhelm most people.
How Do I Check the Temperament?
As the puppy/puppies you are interested in may not even be born yet you may be wondering how to check their temperament. The best way (and only real way) to do this is to look at the parents.
While you and your family will play a massive role in how your Labrador develops, much of their temperament and personal traits such as friendliness will be inherited from their mother and farther.
You should never buy a Labrador puppy without meeting their mother. Additionally, it is a good idea to meet the farther as well, but this is not always possible. If you can’t meet the farther, you need to find a trustworthy person who can vouch for their good nature.
Purchasing a working dog is slightly different as depending on the nature of the work that the dog will be doing, the personality/temperament may not be important.
Inherited diseases are a big problem in all dog breeds including Labradors, so it is important to check that the parent dogs are in good condition. Physically check all certificates, medical records, etc. that you can get your hands on. If the breeder can’t give you anything do not purchase any puppies from them. Good breeders should give you information on the following:
- Hip scoring
- Elbow scoring
- Eye condition/scan
- DNA test for Exercise Induced Collapse
- DNA test for dilute coat gene
- DNA test for Centronuclear Myopathy and prcd-PRA (optional)
- Heart exam (optional)
A Labrador puppy who’s parents and ancestors were successful in some sort of sport or job are more likely to be suited to that particular activity. For example, if you are looking for a Labrador to compete in trails/agility it is a good idea to find a breeder with dogs that were successful in the sport.
Choosing a Labrador Puppy
Once you have chosen a good breeder and litter it is time to choose your Labrador puppy. It is best to get in early when choosing a puppy from a good breeder as the best ones will typically be booked first. However, this is not always the case and a lot of the time a good breeder will produce a litter where all the puppies are in good condition.
When you go to inspect the puppy make sure you check that it is in good physical condition and that it is not overly aggressive or shy. Once you have got hold of your new Labrador puppy it is important to get them checked over by your own vet as well.