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The Versatile Lab

"The Labrador Retriever is truly a jack of all trades and a master of many." Nancy Martin

Year after year the most registered breed in the AKC is the Labrador Retriever and surely their versatility is a big part of their popularity. Here are some of the best-known "career" choices for these talented dogs.


A Labs' #1 job is most often that of companion. They " live" to be with us as much as they do to swim or eat or to retrieve. To quote Patricia Burlin Kennedy, the author of " Through Otis' Eyes" : their " innate talent for living" shows us " how to love unconditionally, to forgive without question, to live in the present moment, to give of one's time without hesitation or regret."

Guide Dogs 

Labs are used more than any other breed in assisting the blind. Their low maintenance coat, intelligence, size and temperament make them an ideal guide dog. They need to be physically sound, calm, confident, adaptable and willing to work. The most successful guide dogs often come from lines bred specifically for these traits. The special harness and U-shaped handle enable communication between the blind partner, who provides directional commands, and the guide dog, whose job it is to keep them both safe while negotiating the complex obstacles of everyday life that those with sight take for granted. There are times when the dog must perform " intelligent disobedience" by deciding not to follow a command it determines to be unsafe…a truly amazing ability. " Puppyraisers" or " puppy walkers" volunteer to raise the pups until they're 9-18 months old (depending on the program), teaching them basic obedience and providing socialization. The young dogs are then given back to be trained professionally as a team with their blind handler. See our links for a partial list of guide dog associations.

Auditory Assistance Dogs

Sometimes called " signal dogs" these Labs alert the hearing impaired to specific sounds related to the needs of their handler such as indicating that a baby is crying, the doorbell or telephone is ringing or that the smoke alarm is going off. See our links for a partial list of hearing assistance dog organizations.

Service Dogs

These dogs are trained to assist those with mobility limitations through a wide variety of tasks such as retrieving objects, turning lights on and off, pulling wheel chairs and opening or closing doors. They need to have the confidence and docile nature of a guide dog but also have a strong retrieving instinct. Relatively new are programs training " specialty" dogs to detect the onset of seizures in those suffering with epilepsy as well as assisting with other specific conditions or diseases like Parkinsons. See our links.

Social and Therapy Dogs

The benefits of human-animal interaction have been clearly proven and who better for the job than a Lab…consider it four-footed therapy! Several organizations promote the training of dogs just for visiting or " meeting and greeting" at schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and hospitals. A Therapy Dog (TD) must pass behavior/temperament tests and possess more advanced obedience skills. There are even " pet facilitated communication therapy teams" to help in the treatment of disorders like autism. Please see our links.

Detection and Police Dogs

Labs have worked as " sentry" dogs, messengers, Red Cross aides and as mine detectors or " M-dogs" during times of war…and a few even learned to parachute in the Air Force! This rich history of service has evolved into an amazing variety of sophisticated jobs for this breed. They are trained to detect: accelerants (arson), narcotics, oil or gas pipeline leaks, explosives/weapons/ammunition and toxic waste as well as illegal foods and plants that travelers try to smuggle internationally. Labradors can also be trained to indicate the estrus cycle in cattle and for target species detection such as gypsy moth cases, box turtles or for evidence of poaching. As police dogs they may search for suspected criminals and specific types of evidence. As with other jobs, these dogs must be confident and well socialized to people, places and noises. They also need to exhibit above normal curiosity and perseverance, be agile and have high energy. A drug dog might spend 30 minutes thoroughly sniffing a dozen boxes whereas a bomb dog has to be able to search an entire warehouse in that same amount of time. A " hyper" dog obsessed with toys is often a perfect candidate! See links.

Search and Rescue

The Labrador Retrievers' natural retrieving instincts, endurance, scenting ability and " team" mentality make them prime candidates as search & rescue or " SAR" dogs. All humans, alive or dead, constantly shed skin particles bearing human scent. SAR dogs can detect and follow this scent to its source from long distances, depending on weather and terrain conditions, covering a larger area in less time than a human ground crew or a " tracking" dog who must follow the persons path of travel. " Air scent" dogs depend primarily, but not solely, on airborne scent in their search. The term " trailing" dog generally refers to the ability to " scent discriminate" or find a particular person. The dogs are taught the necessary skills as a " game" of increasing difficulty, in partnership with their handler. These primarily volunteer " dog teams" must make an enormous commitment of time and resources…financially, physically and mentally. There is extensive training, record keeping and written testing required of the handler as well as practical testing and yearly re-certifications for the team to remain " operational" . Some teams specialize in one type of search such as avalanche, while most train for a variety of situations, some of which are article/evidence search, cadaver, disaster, water search and wilderness. SAR Labs must have a strong " play" drive, be agile and friendly and have a strong bond with their handler to perform this demanding public service. See links.

Field Work 

The meat and potatoes (or the duck and wild rice if you prefer) of what this breed was developed for are as hunting companions. They are natural " retrieving specialists"! Differences in terrain, type of bird and hunting styles over the centuries and continents have led to a wide variety of training methods and testing. We will focus here on the US organizations and titles as an example of what's involved.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) includes 2 types of competitions in fieldwork: Field Trials - requiring very demanding training, a high degree of precision and most often involving professional trainers and handlers. Hunting Tests- evaluates hunting ability on a pass/ fail basis. In Field Trials, dogs acquire points towards a Field Championship (FC) or an Amateur Field Championship (AFC) by winning and placing in the top 4. The Derby and Qualifying are the two minor stakes that are stepping-stones to the 2 major stakes, Amateur and Open (Special All-Age or Limited). From the Open Stake emerge qualifiers for the ultimate AKC wins: the National Amateur Championship held in June each year and the National Retriever Championship held in November.  Hunting Tests have 3 levels: Junior (JH), Senior (SH) and Master (MH) with the Master National Hunting Test held every fall.

The North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) formed independently to provide a structure for training and evaluation reflecting actual hunting scenarios with testing on a non-competitive pass/fail basis. NAHRA titles are Started Retriever (SR), Working Retriever (WR), Master Hunter Retriever (MHR) and Grand Master Hunter Retriever (GMHR).

A Working Certificate (WC) is not a title but is required by the US Labrador Retriever Club in order to become a bench (conformation) champion. The " WC" indicates a working ability in the field.

There can be " Dual" champions who have titles in both field and conformation.

Several regional Lab clubs have developed their own tests and awards in addition to the above and probably most labs used as hunting companions never compete but provide anonymous, faithful service to their masters. The loss of a treasured hunting dog is " sure to make a grown man cry" . See links.

Show / Conformation

It takes a special Lab to excel in the show ring. In addition to being fine examples of the breed, well groomed and at their optimum health they need to move well and have showmanship…that quality that tells the judge " hey, look at me, I'm the best!" They must also be very well socialized so they don't mind being handled by strangers and dealing with crowded conditions. Females are referred to as " Bitches" and males are officially referred to as " Dogs" , sometimes also called Sires or Stud Dogs. " Matches" are informal shows designed to provide a learning experience for young Labs. No points are awarded at matches whereas " point" shows involve premium lists and professional superintendents where Labs accumulate points towards a " Championship" . The " classes" are always divided by sex and often (but not always) divided by color. These classes include Puppy (which can be divided into 6-9 months and 9-12 mo.), 12-18 Month, Novice, Bred by Exhibiter, American Bred, Open, Winners Class (Winners Dog, Reserve Winners Dog, Winners Bitch and Reserve Winners Bitch), Best of Breed and Best of Opposite Sex. The Best of Breed goes on to compete in the variety group that Labrador Retrievers are assigned to, the Sporting Group. The winner of the Sporting Group goes on to the Best in Show. Other possible classes are Stud Dog, Brood Bitch, Brace Class, Sweepstakes, Futurity Stakes and Veterans Class. The number of points won for first place in a class depends on the number of dogs shown in that particular class and this point structure varies regionally. The more dogs in a class the more " major" the win is. The AKC requires 15 points for a " Championship" which must include a minimum of 2 major wins. Recently added is the Grand Championship title. This requires 25 points, 3 major wins and defeating a Champion three times.  Specialties" are breed specific shows and " All Breed" Shows are just that! See links.


Handlers in this competition coach their Labs through a timed obstacle course of tunnels, jumps and climbing structures using voice and hand signals. As you can guess, these dogs have to be especially " agile" and obedient. AKC Agility Trials award Novice Agility Dog (NAD), Open (OAD), Agility Dog Excellent (ADX) and Master Agility (MAX). Flyball is an off shoot of obedience where the dog must negotiate a series of hurdles, step on a spring loaded box, catch the launched ball and renegotiate the hurdles back to the starting line. Flyball Dog (FD) and Flyball Dog Excellent (FDX) are the 2 titles earned. Flygility is a newer sport combining elements of both flyball and agility. See links.

Obedience training is not only essential for every dog but on a competitive basis it can be a fun career for your Lab. The finely tuned responses necessary for the upper levels of obedience require a Lab with an especially strong desire to please and a handler with an affinity for intense concentration and precision. AKC Obedience Trials award the following degrees: Companion Dog (CD), Companion Dog Excellent (CDX), Utility Dog (UD), Utility Dog Excellent (UDX) and Obedience Trial Champion (OTCh). The " Regular" classes are Novice, Open and Utility and are divided into A and B categories, assigned according to the titles previously won by dog and handler. See links.

Tracking AKC

Tracking Tests are designed to evaluate the Lab's ability to follow the trail or "track" of a specific scent, overcoming a series of problems along the way. Tracking Dog (TD) and Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) are the awarded titles and can be combined with obedience titles, ex: UDT or UDTX. See links.

Scent Hurdle and Rally Obedience 

Scent Hurdle Relay Racing is a spin-off from obedience where teams of 4 dogs compete against other teams to "relay" scent specific dumbbells. Rally-O competition involves a handler and dog team completing a course by reading a series of signs and performing the exercise specified on each sign without additional commands from the judge. See links.

Long Jump
Like the long jump for humans but this version has the dog jumping off of a dock into water! Sounds perfect for a Lab. Training should begin with gradual, safe and fun swimming lessons like all Labs should have then once they're at least a year old and more physically mature, the jumping training can begin. Some start with popcorn (which floats well) as the target/incentive and then progress to a Frisbee. This event is often a natural off-shoot of agility training and obviously requires a Lab in great shape with plenty of courage…the winning jumps are over 22 feet! ESPN's annual Great Outdoor Games feature the sporting dog " Big Air" event and Purina's Incredible Dog Challenge features " Dog Diving". See links.

Imagine you and your Lab performing a choreographed dance routine to music. Well okay, maybe you can't picture yourself dancing with your dog but freestyle is quite a unique opportunity to combine obedience moves and tricks that show off the athletic Labrador " ham" . As opposed to most other competitions, Freestyle allows artistic freedom for the handler in creating the routine and provides the opportunity to showcase your Lab's special skills and personality. See links.

Dog Driving
If your Lab's always dragging you on the leash perhaps one of these activities is for him! Carting: the dog is harnessed to a mini wagon allowing him to cart small loads. Skijoring: a sport where the handler is pulled on snow skis by one or more dogs in harness…and we know how labs love that " fluffy white water" ! Scootering: similar to the above but the handler is riding a scooter. Dog Sledding: yes, Labs can do this too! See links.

Flying Disc
More commonly known as " Frisbee" . This game has become a hot competition involving physical precision on the part of both handler and dog while taking keen advantage of a Labs' desire to retrieve. There are even traveling exhibition teams! See links.

Modeling / Acting
The Labrador Retriever's trainability, pleasing personality, beauty and popularity has made this breed a favorite for movies, TV and advertising. Their appearance has become associated with comfort, companionship, fun, instant " likeability" and " looking good" ! See links.

Canine Good Citizen- a noncompetitive pass/fail test with 10 categories designed to demonstrate that your Lab can be a respected member of society. Community dog events and dog shows will often offer this test. The certificate awarded for passing may be handy to have as written evidence that your Lab is a good citizen! Schutzhund- a German word meaning " protection dog" , this sport focuses on 3 disciplines: tracking, obedience and protection work (similar to the skills required of police dogs.) The evaluation test was developed specifically for the German Shepherd Dog but other breeds are also admitted to Schutzhund trials. See links.

Let us know of other activities and " jobs" for labs that we may have missed!

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