BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
I confess I am now an abiding fan of Chocolate Labradors.
I grew up with an omnipresent Golden Retriever as the principal family pet. However, I decided when I moved to the real countryside as an adult, I wanted a shorter-haired hound from the charming retriever family who wouldn’t get so tangled in the brambles, pick up so many burs or require such coiffuring as a Golden Retriever after rolling in fox poo.
The chocolate labs I have been lucky enough to own are as much members of the family as the humans. They are brilliant with kids. They are forgiven for their errant tails which send coffee cups flying. Their penchant for chewing crocs and trainers is no longer their fault – instead it’s the humans’ fault for leaving shoes where the dogs can get at them in the first place.
Indeed, the chocolate labs in our family are rarely scolded these days – we have come to treasure their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities as one might those of a beloved, mad Great Aunt (even when very occasionally they wee on the kitchen floor, a polite word with them soon alters any anti-social behaviours).
It used to be that the chocs in a Labrador litter were culled. Chocolate Labradors had a frightful reputation as working gun dogs.
Mention Chocolate Labradors to most gun-dog people today and you will receive some pretty robust opinions, most often criticising them for being fat and lazy. Vicious rumours from black and yellow lab owners began that the Chocolate Labs ate their own excrement; that they were flawed creatures compared to their black and yellow brothers and sisters. Far easier to shoot them as pups than put up with and pay for the upkeep of these greedy and troublesome runts of the litter.
While there have been clear reasons why Chocolate Labradors haven’t had a good reputation as working gun dogs, thanks to the efforts of devotees of this colour the Chocolate Labrador is now redeeming itself as a working gun dog.
The colour, varying from the darkest mahogany to an almost ginger-brown, occasionally cropped up in the early 1800’s, when the pups were often murdered. Chocolate Labradors started to get noticed for their talents in the 1930’s by the Cookridge and Tibshelf kennels and the colour proved popular among some show breeders.
Jack Vanderwyk claims in his article, The Origin of Chocolate Labrador Retrievers, that after studying over 34,000 pedigrees there are roughly eight routes to the origin of these dogs and they can be traced back to around 1878. Before that time, no record of this colour exists, quite simply because they were not “fashionable” and therefore were not registered.
With increased exposure, a ready market rapidly emerged looking for “choc” Labradors as pets. Colour alone fired this market – the sole aim being to produce chocolate pups irrespective of their pedigree. Pet owners quickly jumped on the bandwagon and mated chocolate bitches to any local chocolate male they could gain access to. To produce chocolate offspring the gene must be present in both parents – hence a propensity for inbred results.
The consequence has been a poor gene pool of Chocolate Labradors, which, apart from those gun dogs bred by responsible show and working kennels, has been created purely on colour. The few Chocolate Labradors from this cocktail of faulty genetics who did find their way onto to the shooting field understandably failed to display any natural working ability.
Along the way a band of intelligent breeders with a like for the colour and a good knowledge of canine genetics began trying to produce Chocolate Labradors that could work, and their efforts are now paying off. This colour has plenty to offer as a working Labrador, providing the breeding is there in the first place to provide the know-how.
The excellent Shooting UK makes reference to Dorothy Walls-Duffin and her team of Chocolate Grangemead Labradors who prove that the colour of a dog has little bearing on its working abilities: “Dorothy’s first chocolate Lab was Emma and within 20 months she had gained a third in a 14-dog novice stake. Dorothy is a very keen field trialler and has been involved with dogs for over 30 years. Anyone looking at her success with chocolate Labs will not only see that she is a good trainer of gundogs but also that her breeding programme has had a huge influence on the working capabilities of the colour. The first thing that one notices about the dogs is that they really do not conform to the stereotypical view of chocolate Labs. These dogs are fit, athletic and go about their job with purpose.”
I’d recommend anyone to go ahead and buy or adopt a chocolate pup, but it’s absolutely essential that you do your research and tap into bloodlines that have proven working ability.
Finding a pup that has the right breeding, is bred from comprehensively tested parents with good temperaments and from generations of gun dogs with proven working ability isn’t always that simple. It’s worth being patient if you are after a chocolate gun dog.
Worryingly, hundreds of litters are now for sale online and it would be very easy for you to buy a chocolate pup from some dodgy source. Don’t. Instead talk to as many established Labrador breeders as you can and in time no doubt you will find a pup that will do the job in the field.
As for mine, they are simply adorable. One is a rescue and the other is now an old boy who – as long as he gets his daily swim in the river and tin of meat – smiles all day. I tend to take them fishing rather than let them go anywhere near a shooting field. They are great company rather than working dogs.
I would not be without my beautiful, loyal chocolate labs. One day they will be canine angels. I am lucky to be their Master on this earth.
How people culled them in the past I shall never know.