The Real Difference Between American and British Labs

The Real Difference Between American and British Labs

The hunting dog world is full of stereotypes and generalizations—none more entrenched in the bird hunters’ zeitgeist than the perceived differences between British and American Labrador retrievers. It’s commonly believed that British (or English) Labs are smaller, stockier, quieter, more easily trained, and not quite as energetic as their American counterparts. Arguments about superior intelligence, scenting ability, and overall hunting ability are easy to find for both strains, with so much contradiction between rumors that it doesn’t make sense to separate these dogs into different categories.

You might be able to find some trends if you studied enough Labs side by side, but broadly speaking, it’s not as simple as some suggest. According to Mike Stewart, trainer and president of Wildrose International, a respected British Lab kennel, there is no difference. “Genetically, British and American Labs are exactly the same. You have to get into different bloodlines and pedigrees to see dogs that fit into the typical categories of either side.”

Just like buying a Lab based on coat color, if you choose a dog solely on the country of origin, you’re paying for something that doesn’t have any real bearing on health, intelligence, biddability, or athleticism. It’s purely an aesthetic decision. So why pay attention to the difference at all?

It’s all in the breeding, and across the pond they’ve been pretty stringent on how they propagate their Labs. A pedigreed Lab bred in the United Kingdom has a better chance of living up to the generalizations much more than a British Lab from the states. The selectively bred, traditional style in the UK often produces quiet, calm dogs that are highly trainable, with a nose that can not only suss out pheasants, but also blood trail big game.

Here in the states, the role of a British Lab might encompass shed hunting, waterfowl and upland hunting, service, or simply house pet. You could find dual purpose hunting and adventure dogs like those that Stewart and company put out at Wildrose, or a Lab that is expected to do nothing more than retrieve tennis balls and lay on the couch all day. Dogs like the latter still may be considered British, but they aren’t going to impress your hunting partners a whole lot in the field.

Such is the case with American Labs as well. The spectrum covers all types of dogs in the category, and while you can say that retrievers here are high-drive, bigger Labs that can handle late-season ducks in choppy, near-freezing waters, that means nothing until you get into individual bloodlines. There are plenty of American Labs that can’t—or won’t—do any of those things well.

A British or American Lab may fully live up to the stereotypes, or seem to disprove them. It always boils down to individual bloodlines. It should come as no surprise that generations of selective, deliberate breeding in the traditional English style will often produce high performing dogs. The same goes for quality American Labs from long lines of Field Trial and Hunt Test champions. Performance will come not from being either British or American, but the lineage of an individual dog’s pedigree.

Or look at it another way: a Lab being British or American doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s what an individual dog has been bred for over multiple generations that will influence the performance attributes that matter. While you may want to start your search at British or American due to personal preference for appearance, understand that the bulk of what makes a dog great (or not so great) is the result of generations of pairings between dogs with desirable traits—no matter what country they hail from.

Feature image via John Hafner.

Shop

Ground Control Pack
Save this product
First Lite
$250.00
Hauls everything Waterfowl hunters need for long mornings of directing air traffic into the landing zone. Multiple carry configurations, stowable backpack straps, external molle panels, internal folding dividers, and a sonic-welded bathtub design to keep your gear dry through seasons of abuse on the water.
LZ Jacket
Save this product
First Lite
$400.00
A full-season waterproof Waterfowl jacket designed to fit over varying degrees of insulating layers to keep you warm down to 30°F. The LZ is patterned for wing-shooting with heavily articulated arms and specialty pocketing optimized for security and quick access to essential gear.
Refuge Bib
Save this product
First Lite
$500.00
A Waterfowl bib built for performance in the extreme cold of late season field hunting with a robust insulation package, durable waterproof/windproof fabrication, and an extensive feature set optimized for pit and layout blinds.
Mallard Fully Flocked Floating 6 Pack
Save this product
Dakota Decoy
$129.99
These are designed to give hunters the most life-like duck decoy they can get.
Packable Mallard 6 Pack Painted Heads
Save this product
Dakota Decoy
$79.99
The decoys are lightweight, collapsible, and packable for those who must carry their decoys into the honey hole.
Refuge Parka
Save this product
First Lite
$500.00
The Refuge Parka was built for performance in the extreme conditions of the late season with its robust insulation package, durable waterproof materials, and an extensive feature set optimized for every moment of the hunt.
Refuge Muff
Save this product
First Lite
$90.00
Built to keep cold, wet hands warm and digits nimble in the extreme conditions of the late season with its waterproof/windproof fabrication, hi-loft merino sherpa fleece liner, and exclusive zip-open design for quick drying between hunts.
Flight Series Panel Blind
Save this product
Tanglefree
A revolutionary new concealment system from Tanglefree. Offering the ultimate in portability and concealment to effectively hunt field edges, cattail sloughs, standing corn, river banks, and even in the middle of the field from a sitting position while being completely concealed.
Little Buddy Dog Blind
Save this product
Tanglefree
Keep your favorite hunting partner concealed and protected from the harshest conditions. Built with a corrosion resistant aluminum frame, rugged 600D coated Polyester, a double entry door, extra stubble straps for adaptability and a low profile, your companion will be ready to work all day.
Get the latest in your inbox
Subscribe to our newsletters to receive regular emails with hand-picked content, gear recommendations, and special deals.
Our picks for the week's best content and gear
For the whitetail obsessed, with Mark Kenyon
Redefining our connection to food, with Danielle Prewett
Your one-stop for everything waterfowl, with Sean Weaver
Get out on the water with the MeatEater Fishing crew
Technical hunting apparel
Purpose-built accessories for hunting and fishing
Quality elk, turkey, waterfowl, and deer calls
Save this article