Are All Labrador Retrievers the Same?

Do Labrador Retrievers bred for show or field vary in temperament? And are there personality differences between chocolate Labs, yellow Labs, and black Labs? Science has the answers.

Three Labrador Retrievers, Chocolate, Yellow and Black: The differences between colours

By Zazie Todd, PhD

It’s often said there are personality differences between Labrador Retrievers bred to show (conformation dogs) and those bred to work (field dogs). And chocolate labs have a reputation for being different than black labs and yellow labs. Is it true?

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Research by Sarah Lofgren et al (Royal (Dick) Veterinary School, University of Edinburgh) investigates the differences between different colours and types of Labrador Retrievers.

The American Kennel Club describes the temperament of the Labrador Retriever as friendly, active, and outgoing. Labrador Retrievers are in the Sporting group. The AKC says,
"Labs are famously friendly. They are companionable housemates who bond with the whole family, and they socialize well with neighbor dogs and humans alike. But don’t mistake his easygoing personality for low energy: The Lab is an enthusiastic athlete that requires lots of exercise, like swimming and marathon games of fetch, to keep physically and mentally fit."
Although many Labrador Retrievers are family pets, some work as hunting dogs while others are bred for the show ring. There’s a difference in appearance between field (or working) Labradors and conformation (or show) dogs. They also come in three different colours: chocolate, black, and yellow.

Some people think these different types of Labrador have different personalities too, so scientists decided to find out.

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Almost 2000 owners of Labrador Retrievers registered with the UK Kennel Club completed a demographic survey and the C-BARQ, a questionnaire that assesses canine personality. The survey included questions about exercise, and whether the dog was a family pet or a working dog used for retrieval or as a show dog.

Gundogs were given higher ratings for trainability, fetching, and attention seeking than show dogs and pets. They were also rated as less likely to bark, less fearful of loud noises, and less likely to have a stereotypy (unusual behaviour).

Most of these are not surprising as they fit with the requirements of a dog that has to work at retrieval in the field. For example, it’s good they are considered less fearful of loud noises since they will routinely hear gunshots as part of their work. They need to be good at retrieval, and they will spend periods of time waiting in between retrieves.

"Dogs who get less exercise may become bored and frustrated."

The show dogs were rated as less fearful of humans, objects and noise, less aggressive to people who are not the owner, and less agitated when ignored. Again most of these fit with the requirements of a dog that will perform well in the show ring, where there are unfamiliar people and sounds, and the dog will be handled by the judge who is a stranger to them.

Compared to black and yellow Labradors, chocolate Labs were given lower ratings for trainability and fear of noises, and higher ratings for unusual behaviours. Compared to black Labs, they scored lower on fetching but were more excitable and more likely to be agitated when ignored; however these were not different compared to yellow labs.

It is not known if the genes for coat colour also affect behaviour in this breed. It is also possible that other genes exist by chance at greater levels in certain kinds of Labrador, particularly since some dogs were related. 

Science shows chocolate Labs like this one are a little different from other Labradors
Photos: c.byatt-norman (Shutterstock)

One of the nice things about this study is the range in the amount of daily exercise; while some dogs had less than an hour, others got more than four hours of exercise a day.

In general, the dogs who got more exercise were less fearful of humans and objects, less likely to have separation anxiety, and less aggressive. The authors suggest that dogs who get less exercise may become bored and frustrated.

Another study from the same team of scientists found that the average Labrador Retriever in the UK gets 129 minutes of exercise a day. Meanwhile another study looked at how much Labradors love to swim.

One potential confound the researchers acknowledge is that dogs originally bred to work, who subsequently turn out not to be very good at it, may then become family pets instead. Hence it is possible that the dogs kept solely as pets include some ‘failed’ working dogs.

The results are correlational and do not show causality. The differences between the two types of Labrador Retrievers could be due to genetics (being bred for a different purpose), environment (being raised and trained differently), or a combination.  

In addition, the results rely on reports from owners who are likely aware of widely held beliefs about the breed.

The scientists say,
“This large-scale study of behavioural characteristics in Labrador Retrievers revealed a number of associations between physical, lifestyle and management characteristics of the dogs and personality traits. The explanatory factor with the largest overall effect was the Working Status of the dog, where pets showed dispositions that are generally considered less desirable than those of Gundogs and Showdogs.”

The study is fascinating because it looks at personality differences within one breed, which is unusual. It also shows a relationship between exercise and temperament.

The higher ratings for trainability amongst gundogs – who have received large amounts of training – make me wonder if this is a fixed trait, or if training leads to increased trainability. Of course, the best way to train Labrador Retrievers is with positive reinforcement, just like any other dog. That's because scientific research shows that reward-based training has fewer risks, and is potentially more effective, than other training methods. Unfortunately, many dog training books still give outdated advice.

Interestingly, other research suggests there are differences in health and lifespan between chocolate and black and yellow Labradors.

Many people think Labrador Retrievers are the perfect family dog. What kind of Labrador do you have, and what is his or her personality like?

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Reference Lofgren, S., Wiener, P., Blott, S., Sanchez-Molano, E., Woolliams, J., Clements, D., & Haskell, M. (2014). Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 156, 44-53 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.006

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  1. You make a good point saying that the different dispositions in the types of dogs could be due to social bias. I don't know much about this breed specifically, but it does seem odd. Perhaps this should be replicated in a blind study. Strangers should spend some time with the dog and then answer the questions regarding temperament. I would like to know more about the correlation between exercise and disposition. Most would interpret this as proof that dogs who exercise more are happier and better behaved (which, in general, is probably true) but it's possible that there is zero correlation and it is just a coincidence. Perhaps the owners are strict with the dog (particularly in the case where it has a job other than as a family pet) and does not allow adequate exercise time, but also is not friendly with the dog in general. That would lead to disposition conflicts as well. That leads to the nature-nurture issue. This can especially be applied to pitbulls, who have a generally negative bias. In this case, it can also apply to labs. The ones stated as being less friendly, were they born as such, or were they bred to work rather than play?

  2. This reminds me of Darwin's study of animal intelligence. Comparative psychologists which is specialists who compare different animal species. They focused on measuring animal intelligence. You really cant rank the Labradors on intelligence. One dog may be be dull-witted in one task but excels in another one. The gundogs are trained to fetch and the showdogs are trained to obey. Therefore in different fields they wont be ass string as they would be in the one their known for.

  3. I have noticed that chocolate labs have a completely different personality than black labs their larger usually in stature they have a different type of bar type of talk

  4. What I'd be interested to know is how the dogs were trained. Field dogs are often trained on electronic collars for distance, which may appear as though they are better trained yet are learning due to fear rather than positive reinforcement, and whether they find their job rewarding.

    More recent studies have shown that Labradors do indeed have more adipose tissue than other breeds, thus explaining their propensity to be more highly food motivated.

    Would be interested to find out more about this study, as well as how our compared with dogs in the USA.

    1. Shock collars are only legal in certain countries, and field bred labs do just as brilliantly well in countries where shock collars are banned. They are generally easily trainable because they are extremely food-motivated and social, wanting to get well along with everyone

  5. Field bred! They are called "Formel 1" in Denmark, and they are awesome ... lovely friendly and even tempers, highly trainable, lively and spirited. Unfortunately they seem to be non-existing here in Australia, possibly because their working style mostly doesn't fit the landscape here? All the labradors I've seen here - and found on the Internet - are the heavier, duller show type


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